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There’s More to Graduate School Than Careerism: A Response to Phillip Dolitsky

My story sounds like failure, but I don’t consider myself one. The academy was never about a job or even a career. It was about the opportunity to spend time asking questions I wanted to answer. It was about having the leisure to think, talk, teach, learn, and interact with people who were as interested in a subject as I was.

Your question, Mr. Dolitsky, is so personal, I find difficulty drafting a succinct response. I asked myself the same through my education, which is extensive (an Associate of Arts in Persian-Farsi from the Defense Language Institute, a BA in Anthropology/History/Language from the now-defunct Marlboro College, an MA in Middle Eastern Studies from the University of Chicago, a JD from the University of Michigan and a PhD in Anthropology from Boston University).

While I never held a faculty position, I taught courses at two institutions as an assistant instructor and instructor of record and worked in the writing program for a third. I considered applying for tenure positions in two different academic programs (anthropology and law) but rejected the idea largely because of the political bias you described. Of the three careers I have pursued (the military, the academy, and the law), I am least active in academia. Yet I spent a decade in graduate school at three separate institutions, sometimes working three jobs to make ends meet.

Given the above, my answer to the question whether the scholarly life is still worth pursuing should be an obvious “no.” Somehow, it is not.

I can’t tell you what to do. I can only tell you how I’d answer myself a decade ago when standing at the threshold of my academic “career.” I would say yes: without question or doubt, do it.

Academic Work Is More Than a Career

This might seem strange. Had I skipped the other degrees and gone straight to law school, I’d have been a lawyer for a decade now, and my family would be far more comfortable. I’d have more respect and experience as an attorney. In that context, my graduate career looks foolish and I irresponsible for pursuing a dead end. This would be true; except I’ve never measured life by those markers.

The academy was never about a job or even a career. It was about the opportunity to spend time asking questions I wanted to answer. It was about having the leisure to think, talk, teach, learn, and interact with people who were as interested in a subject as I was (and am). That experience was easily worth the opportunity cost of a decade, regardless of the fact that my conservative beliefs and consequent background made it clear I had no future in anthropology.

On their own, however, my conservative views might not have blacklisted me from an academic career. Even in anthropology, perhaps the most progressive of disciplines, conservative leanings are bad but not necessarily damning. I could hide them. Many professors, even progressives, legitimately feel that intellectual diversity is important, which is why organizations like the Heterodox Academy are so large. Many scholars are tolerant.

My real problems stemmed from the fact that those beliefs led to unconventional life choices and shaped my basic approach to the field. For example, I enlisted in the army from high school rather than go to college, an unusual academic career path that earned me private admonition from some senior scholars during my graduate work. My beliefs also spurred interests in forms of social life and theories that have either fallen by the wayside of anthropological discourse (e.g., questions about the structure of dialogue) or made me question certain of the field’s assumptions (e.g., that capitalism is an inherently contradictory system that will eventually collapse). Such variance from the disciplinary norm meant that either I had to change my interests or go elsewhere were I to stay in the academy.

I was a legal anthropologist and always intended to pursue a JD to improve my competitiveness for jobs. When I realized I wasn’t fit for anthropology, I simultaneously felt an urge to return to service in the reserves due to conflict in Syria—which I did and thereby fully damned my anthropological career. I turned to the legal academy. While law schools lean left, they typically have prominent conservative faculty. Ultimately, I found legal scholarship not to my taste. I realized that I truly am an anthropologist. Since I lost the desire to pursue legal scholarship, I decided to practice law, hoping I could teach as an adjunct in an anthropology department somewhere.

Success without an Academic Career Is Possible

My story sounds like failure. In certain respects, it is. In other ways, I also succeeded. I wrote a dissertation on a fashionable topic (how American Muslims use and understand Islamic law) that won a Wenner Gren fellowship, prestigious in my field. I earned four graduate degrees in ten years. Most of my peers spent ten years earning two. I taught my own courses and earned special certification as an instructor. Yet I failed because I never entered the market.

 

I don’t consider myself a failure, however. I never entered the academy to gain worldly success. Doing so is foolish enough that no rational person should. (Don’t believe me? ask Max Weber.) Today the uncertain tenure track involves nearly a decade of earning less than minimum wage followed by more years of below-average wages to gain a time-consuming job that pays a median wage. If one does this for anything other than passion, he or she should be disqualified from entering programs requiring intellectual rigor.

I don’t regret my decision to pursue a dead-end path to the academy, because for me it wasn’t a dead end. The fulfillment of my intellectual curiosity and desire to share that with others were the primary reasons I entered graduate school. I easily obtained that, despite the bias against conservatives. You can too.

How Political Bias Hurts Conservative Scholars

Besides, the real grind against conservatives in the academy doesn’t usually come socially. It’s on the money trail. One should therefore separate the grad student path, which is little affected by bias, from the path of faculty, which is significantly affected by political bias.

The friction arises for two reasons. The first is that being conservative, like being progressive, isn’t simply the way one votes or where one goes certain days of the week. It’s a comprehensive worldview. Consequently, conservatives’ interests differ from progressives’. This difference makes intellectual diversity important. Unfortunately, in a market of hyper-competition, where there are myriad options to choose from, diversity is the last thing that gets results.

Instead, in competitions for grants, jobs, and promotions, referees tend to pick people whose work and ideas are most similar and amenable to their own. Thus, despite honest intentions otherwise, viewpoints replicate and entrench themselves. I saw such “passive discrimination” play out in my own grant applications as well as my peers’. I actually changed my dissertation topic because of it.

The second is more direct bias. Generations of racial bias and the lack of educational institutions’ competence challenging this means most academics are still white. They used to be white men. Now they are just as often white women (in anthropology most are now women, but this fact hasn’t stopped colleagues from sharing social media posts describing how female anthropologists are still discriminated against by the anthropological “patriarchy” in hiring).

Departments have made laudable efforts to diversify their faculties, but this effort discourages people like me from jobs. In a decade at Boston University, the anthropology department made seven or eight hires. Only one of them was a white man, and he was gay. It seems highly unlikely that the trend away from straight, white male faculty is accidental. Looking at such facts in a competitive market made leaving the academy an easy answer, especially for someone with talent.

The Success of Conservative Academic Programs

Besides, things aren’t so bleak. It’s not clear that the progressive dominance of the academy is inevitable or permanent. The outlook for conservative principles in the academy has never been better, in fact. Philanthropists have founded many institutions to protect our principles. These include the James Madison Program at Princeton, the Zephyr Institute at Stanford, the Abigail Adams Institute at Harvard, the Lumen Christi Institute at Chicago, and many others.

On a national level, there is a plethora of organizations devoted to conservative graduate students. The Intercollegiate Studies Institute and the Institute for Humane Studies are perhaps the oldest groups, but there are also younger organizations like the Tikvah Fund (which is Jewish), the Hertog Foundation, and the Mercatus Center. Other programs less directly affiliated with universities include the Common Sense Society and Claremont’s young professional programs. I have attended or know administrators in many of these programs and would be happy to advise you about them. They have given me a lifelong network of fellow travelers who have greatly eased the burden of traveling this road, in addition to providing networking opportunities.

 

There are more ways to the academy than PhD-to-tenure. I know many other scholars who have found administrative work at the institutions listed in the previous paragraph. While formally administrators, many of these people still run seminars and write, making great connections through the students and instructors they bring in to teach (many of whom are world-class academics).

Non-Traditional Academic Paths

Academic careers that do not depend on years of scholarship are also available. These professorships of practice exist especially in fields with a practical component, such as medicine, law, international relations, and public policy, allowing career-experienced individuals to re-enter the academy. While having a PhD isn’t necessary for these (though with the proliferation of PhDs, this might become true), it’s extremely helpful. The increase in adjunct faculty is also advantageous to academics forced out of the academy. These individuals, like me, are likely to have steady jobs providing much higher pay than scholars relying solely on adjunct work, making it a realistic option.

Even if you end up in the professional sphere away from the academy, a PhD will garner immense respect in many fields. There are usually also pay and positional advantages as well.

There are many opportunities at institutions not commonly considered for international relations scholars in particular. Many are friendly to if not actually conservative. I mean military academies, various war colleges (Army, Navy, Air, Marine, and National) and other Defense Department professional military education schools (Naval Postgraduate School, National Intelligence University, etc.) that retain PhDs on their faculty and provide similar opportunities as traditional universities.

A PhD Is a Personal Choice

The choice whether to pursue a PhD is personal. Weighing and balancing individual goals is essential, but you shouldn’t get bogged down in ideological conflicts. On the ground, they are often less prominent than when seen from afar. Likewise, they aren’t evenly spread. If you’re open to the intellectual experience and value that primarily, a PhD provides immense opportunities, especially if you are wise enough to plan an exit strategy.

 

A caveat here is choice: make sure you pick a program with faculty that will support you and your interests. If you don’t do that, then bias will be the least of your concerns. In the academy, relationships matter more than anything else, and good faculty, the kind who look to invest in the intellectual growth of their advisees, will look past ideological differences to see your potential as a scholar. Bad faculty, the kind who are mostly driven by self-love and focused on maintaining hangers-on, may also see your potential, if they like you—but they may also hurt you. That harm, however, will come from their pusillanimous nature more than from any bias itself, so even philosophical agreement is little protection.

Ultimately, you must decide whether you want the degree because it’s worth it to you personally or whether it’s simply a means to an end. If it’s merely a stepping-stone to the academy, there may be better ways to go (and for reasons other than ideological homogeneity). If you want the educational experience for itself, you won’t find that anywhere else. No one else, after all, will pay you to do nothing but think and read. For some, that’s worth a lifetime’s work; they get it only in retirement if at all. We, the lucky few, get it in the beginning of our careers, and the gain, in or out of the academy, is immense.

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