A fiercely smart man wrote me an email and we talked about a few things. I asked him to share his story about academia. He received a PhD in philosophy. And then decided to quit the academic life and find a new job. Does he regret his choice?
Here’s what he had to say:
“I would like to share lessons learned from almost 40 years outside of academia. I taught part time for a year after getting my philosophy PhD in 1977. But with a wife and new baby, I decided to find a better job than adjunct teaching.
It was fairly easy to become a computer programmer then. There was huge demand, and even people without degrees in computer science could get into programming.
Philosophy has remained my passion. Programming meant nothing to me. But it paid well. And it was easier than many jobs that paid less.
I did programming for 25 years. After the first 5 years, I could have done it in my sleep, and the job was very tedious. As I got older, and did not want to go into management, younger programmers were sometimes disrespectful. And I was commuting on LA Freeways 3 hours a day.
The life of real work can be pretty miserable. People who go through this unrewarding grind to support their families are the real heroes in my book.
My thinking about disconnecting from academia changed over the years. Being a philosophy professor had been my dream since 1965. And for about five years after I bailed out, I had some hope of getting back into academia.
During my year as an adjunct, I worked on papers to try to publish in philosophy journals.
But working as a programmer, I started thinking about philosophical questions without reference to anything going on in academic philosophy. Within a few years, I had arrived at my own understanding of reality.
And by then, my thinking was so far from the mainstream, and growing farther as time went by, that any effort at publishing became unrealistic.
And this was a far greater frustration than not having an academic job.
Because the truth is, as I saw more clearly as time passed, the motive behind writing was vanity. And it was vanity that made being a professor so appealing in the first place.
Vanity is behind anything people do to be ‘special.’ And the only way to kill vanity is to starve it. If you feed it, it just grows.
So my non-academic ‘career’ was one long exercise in undermining vanity.
And when we subtract the vanity from academic life, there isn’t much left. Truth? OK, as long as I discover it, and get an award for it.”