Real Academia v. "Professional Students"

While we’re discussing what is or isn’t done in the world of serious academia:

In my undergrad (and only collage) career, I met an absolutely brilliant young woman.

Whenever the conversation turned to “what do you want to be when you grow up*”,
her answer was always “Professional Student”.
She was bright enough that grant money flowed easily.
I made my long-delayed cross-country trip in 1991. For the hell of it, I hopped off the Interstate and looked her up.
She was about to do two things: Complete her PhD and turn 40.

She is dead now, so no harm.

If you came across such a person - bright, talented and completely disinterested in working for a living, how would you have reacted?

    • best answer, from Peanuts: “Outrageously Happy”

Real Academics, sooner or later, seek to contribute to their field, either by teaching or research or writing for publication or some combination of the above.

Professional Students do homework.

sounds like a great way to live

working sucks

I enjoy my job far more than I did going to college. But then, I was a pretty shitty student.

Oh yes, details:

Field: Psychology

Achievements pre-Doc:

Grad Student Instructor (apparently very few classes)
“a couple” of articles published.

10 years later, she was listed as “co-author” of a textbook re Clinical Psychology.

She found work after a year - in a place she hated. The job was academic, non-teaching.

A post-doc can do it pretty much forever. The catch is you either have to find a placement that you can renew a few times, or more likely move every 2+ years to a new posting. Depends on what you consider work, but is often freeform with regards to hours and such, unless you have a hardass PI who runs it like a job. Mostly research, maybe a few teaching opportunities.

Maybe I over-estimated the significance of the following:

She was on or around FSU (big on research) for close to 20 years (as I said, she is beyond harm now).

After all that time, when it came time to face reality, there was no space for her on that campus. She ended up in a place which had to have been WAY down her list (geography and, lesser extent, culture) of desired places to live.

I thought it was telling that she was NOT able to hang around any longer - she started her working career in the Sept. '92 class - a little over a year after her Doctorate.
She had an SO who also started work at the same school at the same time - so maybe they presented themselves as a pair - to get one, must hire both. Have no idea.

Then they’d better both be very good, because most departments would pass on them as they less likely have two openings. A tactic I seen used more than once: person applies, interviews, is given an offer. Then they say “BTW I have a spouse, what can you give them, hmm?” Department does want to go through hiring process again, so the offer is stronger. It probably doesn’t apply if they’re in different fields (why should Geology care about a new English professor?). Maybe if both in similar areas, the Dean of Science or someone can make that more likely.

Both were Psychology - one took an undergrad-level teaching position, the “Pro” was in admin.
Yes, it was a very large school, so maybe adding another teaching position wasn’t a huge deal.

Why do you equate answering “professional student” with disinterest in working? From your own account she worked quite a lot, 1) finished a Ph.D. 2) wrote articles, 3) co-authored a text book, 4) took a job when she finished her Ph.D. All of this is a hell of a lot of work. Perhaps ultimately she was not as successful in this work as she would have liked, but then again the same could be said for any number of career/work paths.

Why on earth would you characterize this not being interested in working? It seems incredibly disrespectful to say about someone who you seem to consider a friend.

Because, for most of us. “student” is a phase, not a destination? Because, for full-time students, the PhD comes well before age 40?

She did not view “student” as a stepping stone to career X; she viewed “student” as the destination.

This comes under the heading of “nice work if you can get it”.

I was quite happy to hear that she had managed to stretch “student” as long as she did, and was hoping that she’d be able to stretch it another 20 years.

I’m still curious as to how she went from being a “fixture” at a large public university to “no work for you” the moment the Doctorate was awarded.

The third option is researcher. They may have academic sounding job titles at universities, but not actually have to teach classes.

Depends how you class (helping) supervise Masters, PhD’s and post Doc’s too though

She died ? Maybe the malaise in her career was somehow influencing her death ?

She started smoking at age 14, and didn’t quit until the lung cancer diagnosis.

Brilliant, but somewhat stupid on that point. Maybe she conflated “student” with “young and immortal”.

Died at age 50. At least the end came soon and fast (3 month prognosis on brain cancer). She did make it back to her old haunts to die.

And, if you are in the business, you now know enough to ID her.

Obviously I don’t know the exact details of this person or their field, but if the OP’s description is correct “a couple” papers and co-authoring a textbook sounds like a pretty weak output for 15+ years of work. Now, that description can encompass an order-of-magnitude of actual work, depending how substantial each publication is. Did she actually write most of a textbook, or just part of a single chapter?

To the OP, I know a guy who is now on his seventh year as a masters student (though I think his advisor upgraded him to a PhD recently.) IMO it can be a very seductive trap for the smart and lazy. If the professional student quits part way through, what else are they going to do? Work part-time retail? Futzing around in academia pays better, is way more interesting, and doesn’t have to involve much real work.

There are these traps at every level of academia. But eterna-postdocs are at least earning a decent wage, and productive enough to justify their salary.

In the field I was in there was a pretty high proportion of professional students (linguistics). They took class after class, then re-started their focus so they had an excuse to take more classes. An awful lot of the people in my program were over 40, and not all because they’d gotten out into the real world first. It’s just an area that brings them out of the woodwork.

You guys are crazy. Working a 9-5 is an order of magnitude easier than grad school. Oh man, the stacks of reading, the tedious one upsmanship, the need to always be on campus for some reason or another, the weekends spent writing, the evenings at lectures and panels…no freaking way. Give me a job with somewhat set hours and only occasional work to bring home with me, and I’m a happy girl.

Don’t get me wrong, I loved the intellectual atmosphere of grad school. But life is a whole lot less stressful in a job.

I don’t mean to say grad school is necessarily easy. Og knows, I’m a 3rd year PhD student and I’ve spent a ridiculous number of hours last week diving into the literature and preparing a research proposal. (I could quote you a big number of hours but I hate those pissing contests and my conception of time is a little shaky at this point.)

But nobody is really forcing me to bust ass like this. If I didn’t care about the research itself, advancing my career, or approval from my advisor and committee, I *could *get away with easily half as much work as I do now. And I’ve seen a few “professional students” get away with far less than 9-5 effort for years.

Spousal hires in unrelated departments are…less common than they used to be, but still occur in academia. I mostly see them these days when the primary candidate is really wanted - not typically someone with a newly minted doctorate, especially in many of the humanities fields. A lot of times it was easier when the spouse was not a specific department, but had a more general degree - I’ve seen university admin request the library hire a spouse within the last 6 years because they wanted the candidate. Half the spouse’s employment cost came from the candidate’s home department for a certain number of years, then it all rested on the library.
As to the OP, I know people like that and I honestly don’t get it. I don’t understand why someone would want to spend that much time studying something and then not do something with it. The only thing I can think of is that there’s a serious case of Imposter Syndrome that has convinced the person they can’t do anything well other than be a student.

That’s assuming you’re doing grad school as grad school was intended to be done. My ex-husband spent 10 years (not) doing his dissertation but on the books as a student, getting student grants to go to symposia and camping with his friends as “research.” He’d crank out the occasional article or panel that took a weekend to put together. He spent maybe 3 months actually actively writing and revising his dissertation. 3 months at the end of those 10 years as an ABD.

IMHO, “real academia” means you make a living through working as a professor or other academic profession or through research grants.
A “professional student” just sounds like someone who doesn’t feel like working and someone finances them to spend their life in school taking classes.

Maybe you want to retell this story so it sounds less serial-killery.

With indifference.