Gregory Semenza

Associate Professor at University of Connecticut

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Only Writers Left Alive

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Image: Tilda Swinton as Eve in Only Lovers Left Alive (2013), directed by Jim Jarmusch

If writing your dissertation or seminar papers makes you unhappy, the problem might be the topics you’ve chosen. Or it could reflect a poor relationship with your adviser or your professors. More often than not, though, it’s a result of the career choice you’ve made.

There’s nothing wrong with you because you don’t like academic research or writing. Nor is there anything intrinsically admirable about people who do. You just happen to like different things. If the writing is on the wall, however, do yourself a favor and read it. Get out while you still can, before you waste your time and money, and some of your best professional years.

Toward the end of my own Ph.D. training, when I began attending job-market workshops, a split emerged between those students eager to bring their research and teaching to a variety of universities and those who claimed to dislike research and “just want to teach.” Years later at the University of Connecticut, when I began running those workshops myself as a director of graduate studies, I continued to witness the same sort of division between the “ambitious researchers” and the “dedicated teachers.”

Even now, in the midst of a terrible academic job crisis, I hear from too many graduate students around the country who believe that it makes sense to hold out for those elusive teaching positions where research expectations will be nonexistent or at least minimal. They often get angry at me when I tell them it’s misguided at best to spend six or seven years in a doctoral program in the hopes of finding a tenure-track job requiring little or no publishing.

Those jobs basically don’t exist and haven’t for some time. Publication standards will vary at different institutions, of course. A college requiring its faculty to teach four courses a semester cannot expect the same number of publications as a research university where faculty teach one or two courses a semester. Nonetheless, some amount of publishing will be demanded by the vast majority of departments, both for tenure and for subsequent promotions, merit-based increases, and so forth. Simply not publishing isn’t much of an option in most fields and at most 4-year colleges.

Now I’m sure that some professors out there will tell me I’m wrong, that they managed to secure just such a job, maybe even recently. They will point out that at some liberal arts colleges, and community colleges especially, research expectations remain minimal or non-existent. But my point is that their experience is extremely far from the norm, and you need to realize that your chances of duplicating it are extraordinarily small.

In a job market as competitive as ours, everything comes down to a pretty simple question: Why would departments consider hiring a Ph.D. who can only contribute in one or even two areas of academic life? Surely, they will be able to find someone capable of balancing quality teaching, research, and dedicated service?

The fact that they will manage to do so as often as not exposes the most serious flaw in the Ph.D.-for-teaching logic, which is the assumption that one’s research must be performed at the expense of one’s teaching. That type of thinking seems logical, in part, because of all the unflattering portraits in news and pop culture of professors too consumed by their research to even notice their students. But has any reliable correlation ever been established between research productivity and poor teaching? To the contrary, nearly all of the reliable studies “clearly indicate,” in the words of John Hattie and Herbert W. Marsh, that “Good researchers are neither more nor less likely to be effective teachers than are poor researchers.” (Such studies reinforce my own local observations that the least-committed teachers very often prove to be the least-productive researchers, and many of the most dedicated researchers are terrific teachers.)

If no such negative correlation can be established, department heads and administrators will see no reason to settle for one-trick ponies. That means your chances of locking down a tenure-track position will depend largely on demonstrating a solid publication record (according to the standard for your discipline) and evidence of dedicated teaching.

To graduate students who find themselves saying “I just want to teach,” I would say that you’ve entered a danger zone. Serious self-analysis and honest conversations with your advisers are in order. First of all, why are you making this claim in the first place? Is the real problem that you simply lack the desire and ambition to publish? Could it be that you are feeling anxious about the quality of your research or your own productivity?

I remember convincing myself during one phase of my graduate work that “I just wanted to teach,” but it soon dawned on me that the problem wasn’t the research process or my disdain for publishing: It had more to do with the fact that whereas several of my friends had already managed to publish articles, I had only managed to earn some rejection letters. Only after sticking with it a bit longer and landing my first article could I see that I’d been bashing research purely as a coping mechanism against my own anxiety. If you’re sure you’re not rationalizing in a similar manner—if you know in your heart that you really just don’t like the research and publication processes—then it’s time to think more carefully about what sort of work does make you happy.

I want to stress that I’m not advising you to exit academe two chapters short of your Ph.D. Obviously, much of the difficulty of making the sort of huge life decisions I’m talking about has to do with the amount of time, energy, and money that students invest in their graduate educations. The primary virtue of deliberate self-analysis of your feelings about writing and publication—and of frank conversation with your advisers—is early detection of a potentially significant problem.

To graduate advisers who find themselves counseling students who “just want to teach,” I would urge total honesty and an equal level of self-awareness. I’ve advised enough Ph.D.’s, and spoken to enough colleagues, to understand by now that much of our mentoring is directly related in one way or another to our own need for professional validation. An advisee who dislikes academic research or publishing might seem threatening—a sign of our failure to inspire in them a love for what we do.

But if we’re doing our job as mentors, tending sincerely to the professional future of our advisees, we need to remain as objective as possible. We must let the student know that we understand the feeling, and then check to make sure something else isn’t going on. If we deduce, however, that a student really finds nothing satisfying about conducting research or writing up the results for publication, then we need to do the only responsible thing: Encourage the student to pursue a more fulfilling career.

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