The Rewards of Working in Academia
Last week, I had the opportunity to spend a good part of a class talking about one of my passions: making very large paellas for big groups of people. That was fun! (My largest to date was for 300.) Then, after class, I had lunch with renowned philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah, and we talked for an hour about ethics and identity. The conversation around the table of 10 was engrossing and included much participation from the five students in attendance. Inspiring. Needless to say, I love my job. And the path that has led me to this enviable position started at Hamilton.
As a Hamilton student, I spent my junior year studying in Madrid, Spain. My motive was a peculiar determination to achieve a high level of proficiency in Spanish. I had few expectations and many misconceptions. But I was going to master this language. As the year progressed and my Spanish improved by leaps and bounds, I realized that I really loved living in Spain. The impact of that experience was deeper than I could have imagined. (That turns out to be a very common phenomenon.) It involved so much more than simply learning another language: the cultural immersion, learning to think in new ways, to live in new ways. It was an endlessly enriching adventure. By early in the second semester I knew I would have to come back. It was during my senior year at Hamilton that I first started giving some real thought to a career in teaching. But I was not in a rush. I was anxious to get back to Spain, and so after graduation, I did go back, thinking I would spend six months to a year perfecting my Spanish before considering graduate school. But something totally unexpected happened. I met a young woman and yes... it was love at first sight. We’re still together, thirty-seven years later, parents to three daughters and grandparents to a very funny one-year-old. I share this personal history to make the simple point that life can be very unpredictable. (We all know that, but sometimes it’s good to be reminded, particularly when visiting a career-oriented blog.) I did eventually find my way to a Ph.D. program in Hispanic Studies, but it was not a straight path and it involved an additional two years in Spain.
When I had finished all my coursework for the Ph.D. and had my thesis topic approved, I decided it was time to go out and find a full-time job. I ended up at Colby College with a two-year visiting instructor position, teaching a full load of classes as I finished writing my dissertation. In 1991, I started teaching at Dickinson College and have been here ever since. Seven of these past 28 years have been spent in Malaga, Spain, directing Dickinson’s study abroad program. I now have a new position at Dickinson as executive director of the Clarke Forum for Contemporary Issues. I have been tremendously fortunate in my professional career. Finding a position that would allow my family and I to spend extended periods of time in Spain (where my wife is from) was a high priority. It has worked out better than we could have imagined. I have always loved being in the classroom and still do to this day. My new position is kind of a dream job. While still able to teach one class, I direct the Clarke Forum, the center of intellectual life at the college, and I get to meet fascinating people all the time.
If you are considering a career in education, it is essential that you have a real passion for teaching. And learning! I believe this to be true at any level. If you don’t feel a deep passion, you will be at a very high risk of burnout. I know many teachers in both primary and secondary education who love their jobs. And it’s not because they’re getting rich. It’s the satisfaction the work provides, the knowledge that you can have such a positive impact on the lives of those you teach.
If your interest is in higher education, I would think seriously before jumping into your graduate studies. It is a big, multi-year commitment. It can get quite stressful. Before deciding, research potential schools and find the program that makes sense for you and that is strong in your area of interest. Talk to people in your field. Don’t hesitate to reach out, even to people you have never met. Most of us are happy to respond to unsolicited emails if they have real questions about our work. The job market is tight, and in some disciplines, very tight. You need to be willing to relocate to just about anywhere. But if you’ve got the passion, go for it! Academia can be a tremendously rewarding career. (It certainly has been for me.) Job satisfaction among tenured professors tends to be very high. (Sadly, for people of color, although the degree of satisfaction is high, it is not as high—we have work to do! Details on a recent study can be found in The Chronicle of Higher Education, March 8, 2018.) For others who are not so fortunate and end up in unstable jobs that often force them to move frequently from one school to another, the situation can be very different. But even many itinerant and adjunct professors, in spite of often finding themselves with scandalously low compensation, are committed to a profession that they find meaningful and rewarding. It’s all about the passion.