You Don't Have to Love Your Job

Too many Ph.D.’s are too attached to the romantic notion of loving their work

Mark Shaver for The Chronicle

February 12, 2014

Julie: With Valentine’s Day upon us, we thought we’d write about one of those good old American cliches: the importance of loving your work. Many career-advice books are dedicated to the idea that to find fulfilling work, you must first find your passion, discover who you are, and then Do What You Love and the Money Will Follow, as Marsha Sinetar’s book recommends.

However appealing, that idea is not without problems, as an old Dilbert comic and a more serious recent critique handily demonstrate.

Jenny: For Ph.D.’s, this idea is especially problematic. Many, if not most, young scholars on the tenure-track market are already doing what they love, and the money is definitely not following (and some of it is going away to pay their student debt).

New Ph.D.’s understand the need to expand their career options, but often fear that pursuing a nonfaculty career somehow betrays their passion for their field and invalidates years of study. The choice between breaking into academe or doing something else often seems like a binary one: Do what you love, or do some BS jobs, as David Graeber wrote about last summer in Strike! Magazine.

Julie: After years of talking with graduate students and recent Ph.D.’s, we have met many who love what they’re doing, many who dislike what they’re doing, and many who fall somewhere in between. William Pannapacker wrote earlier this fall about how "love" drives students to graduate school, particularly in the humanities. And certainly, it’s important for graduate students to be passionate about their fields in order to have the motivation needed to complete the degree.

But the whole notion of "follow your bliss," the popularity of which is attributed to the late American comparative-mythology scholar, Joseph Campbell, has done a disservice to American students and particularly doctoral students. The belief that if you do what you love everything else—including a perfect job—will work out is what’s partially behind so many students pursuing degrees in fields where the job outlook is poor or nonexistent. And universities have, wittingly or not, been complicit in that.

Jenny: Part of the work of figuring out where you fit is letting go of others’ expectations for your future and defining what success means to you. Academe is a prestige game, and it’s easy to get caught up in that, despite your best intentions. It can be hard to separate your advisers’ expectations from your own, and even harder to break the news to them when you decide to make a career move that isn’t in line with their views.

Some advisers, hearing that you plan to pursue a nonfaculty career, will be encouraging and want to help. Others will not. The same is true of your academic friends and colleagues. You must keep moving forward, keeping in touch with those who are supportive and leaving behind those who are not. (Ignore the rhetoric of "the best students get jobs," which serves no one well, as this excellent column, "A Ph.D. and a Failure," shows.)

Julie: Too many doctoral programs leave little room for their students to figure out what else in the world of work they might like—or even love—to do. How Ph.D. programs might change—and whether they should—is beyond the scope of this column. But we have offered advice in the past on how departments and deans can help Ph.D.’s with a nonacademic job search.

Jenny: We’ve also offered plenty of advice on the steps graduate students can take to prepare for a broad job search down the road. You can read our past column on building an active network (including nonacademic contacts, not just faculty contacts). If you’re thinking, "yes, of course I need to do that," then the time to start is now. Social media has made this so much easier than in the past. Another important step we’ve advised is conducting informational interviews to learn about other careers.

Julie: It may seem to you that your friends who work outside the academy have jobs and careers they like—even love—and also have families, hobbies, a house, and a pension. Some of them may not feel all that passionate about their work, but they are happy that it enables them to have a life they love (or like a lot).

But many academics, especially recent Ph.D.’s, feel that liking their work isn’t good enough. They have to love it, and even look at it like a relationship, as evidenced by recent columns such as "We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together (Probably)," "Hanging Up on a Calling," and "Beware the Passion Track."

Jenny: So, is it OK to not love your job, especially after going through all that effort to get a Ph.D.?

Of course. And several Ph.D.’s in nonacademic jobs have written about those feelings, like this 2013 essay, "I Hate my Postacademic Job." I’m sure there are many other Ph.D.’s less than happily employed outside of academe. (You’ll find plenty of success stories at websites like Where Are All the Ph.D.’s? and Ph.D.’s at Work.)

If you find yourself unhappy in your first nonacademic job out of graduate school, keep some perspective. Your first job will not be your last job. Focus on learning what you can from the position.

Keep in mind that many Ph.D.’s who do get tenure-track jobs find that they don’t necessarily love their jobs, either—especially not right away. Perhaps they are overwhelmed, lonely in their new location, or intimidated by the work they need to do to get tenure. Those folks adapt, learn how to work better and more efficiently, and in time the job can become one they love. If it doesn’t, they move on, either by finding a job at a different institution or by leaving the tenure track altogether, sometimes quite happily.

Julie: One of the responses I often give to graduate students asking career or job-search questions is: "It depends." I know most people are hoping for a more definitive answer, but it is simply not possible with a question like "What does it mean to find fulfilling work?" What is fulfilling for one person may not matter to another. The work I personally would define as fulfilling involves: helping people who care about their work; dealing with multifaceted and sometimes progressive challenges; and being able to show some tangible and intangible accomplishments. Someone else might define fulfilling work as: the chance to make a lot of money; the opportunity to advance quickly; the ability to work on one project at a time and manage all aspects of it; and the option to travel extensively.

Jenny: The real question is: How do you define fulfilling work for yourself? For me, like many Ph.D.’s, the issue of geography was a pressing one when I finished my degree and weighed my career options (or lack thereof at the time). I wanted to have the freedom to decide where I wanted to live, and to be able to move with relative ease if personal or family circumstance required it. Of course I knew the geographic limitations of an academic career when I started graduate school. However, I found that once the question of geography became a reality ("By next fall I’ll have to move to an as-yet-unknown location, not of my choosing") rather than an abstraction, I began to think differently about the way my work fit into my life.

Julie: Jenny’s point suggests that sometimes what looks fulfilling from the outside isn’t so satisfying once you’re doing it, as many doctoral students discover. That is certainly one reason we are always urging our readers and our students to talk with people about their work and find out what they like and don’t like about it.

Jenny: Another factor that increases job satisfaction or fulfillment is being appreciated. When you’re hired, that’s validation. When you get a positive evaluation or a raise, that’s validation. Less formal instances of validation can also help you see your work as fulfilling.

Academe is not a culture where those types of validation are part of the structure. Markers of success are few and far between (earning a Ph.D. after eight years, earning tenure after six), which is one of the reasons many people find the culture to be so punishing.

Julie: It is normal to not always like your work. It’s also normal to like (or even love) only parts of your work. So focus on those parts you like. For those readers in the midst of your first nonacademic job search, know that this first may help you discover new things that you grow to love. Most likely, it will not be your last job.

Jenny: We are not here to tell you "sell out," give up your dreams of a scholarly life, and become a cog in the wheel of global capitalism. Rather, we encourage you to begin to interrogate the notion that you can’t do anything else but be a professor.

Keep networking as you go. Keep a list or spreadsheet of people and the interactions you have with them. Ask everyone with whom you speak to suggest one other person you can talk with. Doing that legwork while you’re still in graduate school will help you to feel more in control of your career once you’re out.

Julie: Be open to possibilities. When people talk about their careers, they often use phrases like "it was sheer good luck" or "I was in the right place at the right time." That can be discouraging if you’re looking for more direction. Usually, though, speakers have set themselves up for good luck—by developing a strong network and by a willingness to try new things.

Setting yourself up for good luck involves connecting with people and opportunities. And doing that will help you figure out what job you might like—and maybe even one you might love.

Julie Miller Vick recently retired as senior associate director of career services at the University of Pennsylvania, and Jennifer S. Furlong is director of the office of career planning and professional development at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. They are the authors of The Academic Job Search Handbook (University of Pennsylvania Press).

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