A lot of folks, with tenured positions, are choosing to get out of the university game to do other kinds of work. A recent issue of Nature has a particularly strong piece of journalism that dives into “the great resignation.” This article has resonated with a lot of people. Perhaps we’ve only seen the the above water portion of this iceberg.
In my university, I can think of some recently-tenured faculty members who have stepped out for jobs in consulting, industry, and funding agencies. These were people who were good teachers, productive researchers, and appreciated by their colleagues. Who enjoyed their students. From where I sit, this leaving-professoring-for-another-kind-of-job is a very real thing.
Yes, the genre of “quit lit” is a staple of the academic online browsing. (I occasionally have linked to some good ones in the rec reads on here.) However, a lot of the people who have publicly written about their exit from higher ed in the past had made this choice because (in part) academia had never provisioned a route towards tenure. While it’s typical for tenured faculty to move to academic administration or to run a lab in a not-university, there seems to be an uptick in those who are just moving on to other kinds of jobs. (Do I have numbers on this beyond what’s in the Nature article? Nope. Did I do a literature search? Nope.)
Why would folks choose to opt out of the system after spending so much effort to build a place in the system? They chose into it, and now are choosing out of it? There are two elements that stick out to me.
The first piece is that the pandemic dampened many of the historic pluses of being a professor, while amplifying a lot of the drawbacks of being a professor. I think what’s great about being a tenured professor is that you have a huge amount of flexibility in your schedule and how you choose to do your job. But after the pandemic, a lot of other non-academic white-collar jobs also are providing the flexibility to work the hours of one’s own choosing and often working from home. And the pay is better.
Meanwhile, in the midst of the pandemic, many universities have made choices that make teaching and research more difficult. They’ve made choices that have prioritized everything but the health, safety, and working conditions for instructors and learning conditions for students. I happen to think that my own campus (and a lot of the CSUs) handled the pandemic quite responsibly and prioritized the well-being of both instructors and students, but this seems to be an outlier across the rest of the US. When you know that your university is actually, literally, willing to put your life at risk to make sure that enrollments stay up, that might make you want to leave, right?
Over the past few decades, the expectations for faculty productivity have escalated continuously. Each new generation of new faculty hires have a level of productivity that substantially exceeds the standards applied to prior generations. This isn’t because it’s easier to do research now than it was back then. Heck, funding rates are lower now. It’s just that our research communities and our institutions have collectively agreed to expect far too much out of our our institutions are simply expecting way too much of us. Why? Because we can, I guess? The amount of work it takes to keep a productive university research lab rolling along, in the long term, is just too much for a lot of us. Universities offer very little administrative support for PIs and so we end up doing several jobs in addition to teaching and research (being our own travel agents, purchasing specialists, accountants, et cetera). These increased expectations have trickled all the way down to grad school, undergrad, and even how the highly-ranked universities pick high school seniors when they apply. This credential bloat is downright absurd and it doesn’t matter how good or important your science is anymore, it’s about how much you produce. What good is flexibility if you’re being expected to work all the time? What good is it being able to choose your research focus when you’re expected to move product into the pages of journals at a high rate?
The second piece of this Grand Exodus or whatever it might be called, is that universities are being too slow to catch up with standards related to equity and justice. We’ve seen a huge increase in right-wing attacks on higher education in the last few years. That’s because our colleges and universities are serving as engines of social and economic mobility for groups that have been historically disenfranchised. The right-wing zealots in the US realize think that they are no longer able to use universities to maintain the patriarchy and white supremacy (not that they’re correct about this), and so they’ve gone on the attack against universities. Meanwhile, our universities are highly conservative entities, in the small-c conservative sense, meaning that they are resistant and slow to change. While diversity and representation in higher education has become a spoken priority, university policies and leadership have been mostly unresponsive to the needs of scholars of minoritized groups. As universities are moving slower than other job sectors to support equity and justice, scholars of color are moving where their work and their humanity is more valued.
To to sum it up: being a professor in STEM means being underpaid relative to colleagues in other sectors while being expected to work more, and while we have the freedom to choose our research focus, there are enough practical constraints that academic freedom isn’t as free as it might appear to be.
How am I feeling about all of this, as an (arguably) mid-career scientist? Well, my job right now is so weird that it doesn’t fit well into the boxes. I am still faculty and haven’t moved into administration, but my workload has principally been reassigned to run the Desert Studies Consortium for the California State University. So I still am operating my research lab and am working with trainees, but have less time for that. I’m out of the classroom (and am in a department with some astoundingly exceptional teachers and researchers), so I’ve been isolated from the many struggles associated with pandemic teaching. Most of my job resembles what a director of a small nonprofit or a small museum does. Which is super fun. While I am clearly underpaid relative to the market rate for what I’m doing and I am keeping my options open and have recently gone on the job market with full sincerity, I’m not unsatisfied with my current role otherwise. Which I recognize is a blessing and and opportunity to create more impact on the world.
There’s another phenomenon related to this that I should mention. There are a lot of tenured professors who will be losing their jobs because their universities will be closing their doors. We have entered a big demographic dip with fewer people at the age of traditional college students. At particular risk are small liberal arts colleges that have low endowments and low enrollments. So while some of us are choosing to leave the professoriate, we also have well-established colleagues who are leaving with no choice in the matter. I imagine (or at least, I hope) everybody working in a school that’s not financially secure is preparing some kind of escape pod.