# 22 SPECIAL (Part 1): The Myth of the Professorship as a “Calling“ and How You Can Become Who You Really Are

My e-mail to PhD candidates, 09/17/2020

Why “Special”?

Today is a special blogging day as you can already see in the headline. I have been blogging every day for three weeks now and I have increasingly been feeling that I have a target audience problem. Knowing your audience when writing is the №1 issue to think about. I did think about this before starting but then I often caught myself addressing different people than I had originally intended to be writing for.

I started out by saying that I would write for startup people, i.e., founders and people involved in the startup scene (see my Prologue). Then in the past few days, especially at a meeting yesterday, it became clear to me that I am not creating the maximum value with my insights if only focusing on startups. This is not me — I am the “in-between” person, the bridge builder between business and academia, between startups and the humanities. So, I need to include the academic target audience in my writing.

Since I believe that we live in an age now, where “structural change” needs to go hand in hand with pragmatic actions by individuals, my posts from now onwards will also include academic actors, i.e., junior and advanced scholars, research managers, and other emerging decision makers who have the power to transform higher education. So, from today onwards, some things might look a little different but the brain behind the letters will remain the same. Without further ado, here is what I have for you. It is going to be a longer read, so I decided to split it into two parts…

Story behind the “Passage”

A few weeks ago, I received feedback from a colleague of mine. I had asked a group of doctoral candidates a few questions about their career concerns and the way in which they gain information (see my original e-mail above). Her feedback contained more than answers to my questions. The attachment she sent me consisted of a longer reflection on my questions. This in and of itself is something that is quite typical of humanities students and scholars at large. Instead of simply doing what you ask them to do, they think a lot about the assignment and then answer in a way that exceeds all expectations.

This “excessive” quality of what you get might be evaluated negatively or positively, depending on the perspective from which you look at it. I very much appreciated her response and her well-reflected answers. For people in the ‘old’ business world, this would have been a “fail” and it is highly likely that they would not have read her document at all because it did not contain any bullet points and would have required more than two minutes of reading… Are these stereotypes? Sure!

Since I am a humanities scholar myself and an entrepreneur, I do not see myself standing on either side and it is not my job to manifest stereotypes about humanities scholars or people in the business world. The only thing I can do is present glimpses from both perspectives to show each party how much they share despite all differences. But I do a have a clear standpoint when it comes to the value that I seek to create with this text today: I want to make the myth of the so-called “calling” to be a professor explode in your head. You will definitely notice whenever this happens….

The way in which I am going to do this is by reframing the issue. And by reframing, I do not mean that the option of you becoming a professor is going to be stolen from you. On the contrary — it is completely possible that you will end up as a professor. (I am not sure if this might not even happen to me at some point in my life.) I even encourage you to try, especially if you think that academia is NOT your calling. But this reframing of a popular myth that becoming a professor is some calling from a supernatural force needs to go. It is usually causing an immense pain for people living in the academic system without them even knowing how the two things — the frame and the pain — are connected.

But as soon as you get a hold of the new mental frame which I will be outlining in the following, you will hopefully be able to breathe again and enjoy life a bit or a lot more. Of course, this depends on two things. One is my ability to write down stuff here which actually makes sense to you and has the power to touch you — both rationally and emotionally. The second condition is that you decide to embrace a new way of looking at academic careers. The former aspect is in my sphere of activity and by starting to write this text, I am taking responsibility for it. The latter aspect is your task and I cannot do anything about your decisions. I can just offer perspectives of looking at the world. The rest is your business.

The Myth of the “Calling”

Those of you who are native Germans or at least speak German, you know how ambiguous this term of the “calling” is in relation to academic careers. In Germany, when you get hired as a tenured professor, the expression for this in literal translation is: “calling” or “getting a call” (= Berufung, Ruf bekommen, berufen werden). Now, get ready for some amateur linguistics session here which nevertheless has a lot of brain seasoning in it and a huge capacity for pissing people off.

First, let us start with the grammar. Getting a call or being called or whatever other expressions there are in German (and it is not different in English, i.e., “getting tenure and tenured”) are passive. If you remember from your English or even German class 101 back in high school, it means that the person doing the action and the person being subjected to the action are not the same. To make this even clearer: Somebody else needs to “call” you. You cannot do it yourself.

You already see where this is going, right?

Yes, exactly, since all of you are smart and well-trained in Postcolonial Theory, Gender Studies, Post Humanism, Material Culture, and whatever else contemporary Cultural Studies have to offer to keep your sophisticated minds busy — language has power. And that power in the case of academic placements comes from institutions, i.e., universities. Did you notice how carefully I introduced the different responsibilities and spheres of action above when starting this text? I talked about some things that are in my sphere of activity and some things that are your responsibility. This finding might sound trivial but it is the key to everything else I am going to explain. By the way: It is also the secret behind every coaching and/or therapy in the world (there are crucial differences between the two, however, just to make sure you do not confuse them).

Before getting into issues of responsibility and academic recruiting, one more introductory word about why this “calling” is a myth. Obviously, this practice is a very real-life phenomenon and done by people of flesh and bones, right? But as soon as you get lost in the academic sphere, one cannot be that sure about this anymore. Even though, and I totally agree with this, academia has slightly changed towards becoming less hierarchical, the Ivory Tower is still very much in place. It is strong and standing as a fortress that protects itself from too much outside interference. And this lack of engagement with the real world (keyword “Third Mission” — I have written about this in other contexts), like any other protectionist strategy, has two effects in two directions: 1) lack of transparency and insights for people outside the fortress, 2) lack of touch with the world outside the fortress for those inside. Well, that sounds quite abstract, right? Let us use an example from the real world.

Last week I spoke with a colleague from the U.K. She is an assistant professor at the business school of a very prestigious university in the north of the country. She is quite an exception there for many reasons. One is that she used to be an entrepreneur before retreturning to academia. The second one is that she is originally from an Arab country. And you have to know that in this part of the U.K. in which she teaches now and in the business school environment, being a woman from a ‘minority’ background is not that common. Anyway, we ended up talking about the situation in her home country during the Covid pandemic. I have a personal connection to the country because of my stays there and my academic work on Arab Americans. What she told me, is that the political situation and perspectives for young academics there are truly deteriorating these days. What I ended up saying was: “Yes, sure, Covid is ruling the headlines and especially regimes that operate with questionable means can continue doing whatever they do completely under the radar. Outsiders from international organizations cannot get in to monitor. Insiders cannot get out because it is a high-risk country.”

Of course, this logic of a protectionist state is century-old in political science and nowadays can be applied to many other countries in the world. I am just using it to point to the parallel you find between academia as a blank spot on the professional map and political systems with mostly authoritarian regimes. The point is, I am not describing this because I want to blame anyone. This is also what the example shows you. The people in her home country are not to blame for their current situation, even if they might have voted for their ruler. And I cannot even say much about the actual policy making of their government because, after all, I have no access to first-hand information. Maybe the government there has good intentions after all. Maybe they just lack the means to create order. Whatever it is — the only fact that we can be sure of is: We do not know because we have no access.

Access is basically the keyword for getting back to the exact significance of the myth. I am not going to talk about the etymological significance of “myths” now or its role in Cultural Studies research. Dear readers, you have read a lot about all this already. There are many books about myths in my field in relation to American history and culture and I am pretty sure, you will find very smart articles about the theory of myths in your field as well. I only want to emphasize the household use of the word in connection with the meaning of the word “calling.”

In the West, which is still dominated by a Christian value framework, the “calling” is usually referred to as some task or vocation that is given to us by God or some other supernatural power. The reason why I am saying this term is a myth is because it meets the very same criteria as any other myth: There is no hands-on evidence if it exists or not. It is a narrative — not more. This is also why the clerical context is so important; being “called” to a professorship in academia also entails many insignia of church inauguration. By giving you a job, the highest order of academia give testimony to your calling. You see what I mean?

Let me get into this analogy a bit more deeply. And, of course, all this is just my singular interpretation but that makes it just as relevant as any other subjective account. After all, what I am writing here is the summary of 15 years in academia, 10 of them as a (junior) scholar. The way in which I have personally experienced the journey that people inside academia come to experience and frame this incident of “being called” substantiates the mythical quality of the process. This even gains very questionable and highly unreasonable traits. That might sound surprising because, scholarship seems to be so rational, right? Well, this might apply to the content of the work, not to the career path that allows you to do it. Because of the way academic socialization works, many young scholars indeed think that this “calling” is the ultimate sign by heaven (!) that being a professor is their faith in the spiritual sense (there are interesting studies on how academics describe their job as “joy” and “miracle.” Will write about this in more detail at some point).

The Vicious Cycle of Myth Making

What I mean by this is actually a weird and somewhat crazy mixture of Puritanism and Calvinism (you know how to google these words, so no lengthy definitions here). On the one hand, young scholars, after graduating with an M.A. or even earlier, start with a lot of motivation and encouragement. They get good grades by their professors and their professors are honestly thrilled because part of their hearts (at least ideally) really wants to educate and promote young talents. Remember, all this is the stage before young scholars usually learn about academia as an institution, not just as a place of learning. So, at this stage, if the students decide to start the academic career path — because they seem to be talented, after all — they think and are being told: “If you work hard enough, you will make it, no matter what the work statistics say or the discourse in your community.” This is Phase 1 of the vicious cycle.

Phase 1: Work hard, become a professor. This can already get people into serious trouble depending on their personality and their life circumstances. Since this is a topic in and of itself, I do not want to discuss all the details. What I simply mean is that some young scholars have a scholarship, some have lecturer/adjunct jobs, some work in research management, some have no job in academia at all and work outside. All these different circumstances have pros and cons and they get aggravated or eased depending on the life situation of the students — do they have kids already, are they from a foreign country, do they have spouses, any other family ties that make them bound to a certain place…? You know all these things quite well. The point is: Even at the very beginning of your career, this dogma of “if you work hard enough you will make it” often starts to get questioned because you are working extremely hard all the time but no rewards are in sight. This starts Phase 2.

Phase 2: Work hard and start questioning yourself. In this phase of being overworked inside and trying to smile for people outside, the process of depersonalization starts kicking in. I have no idea if this is a psychological term or not (I am not going to google now…). What I mean is: You start losing yourself. You can be the most stable person on this planet, you simply start losing everything that people once knew and appreciated you for. You start losing the very core of your personality. That also goes along with losing touch with your emotions and your physical well-being. Since you have such a big brain, however, you call this brain to take over. This means that it really gets trained to work at maximum speed. But in addition, and this is what I want to emphasize: This brain has smart ways of rationalizing irrationality. What I mean by that?

In Phase 1, you started out with the logical and culturally accepted assumption that hard work leads to great achievements. Then, despite all you know and do, this paradigm is proven wrong again, and again, and again… Every career tragedy you witness, every person dropping out of a PhD program, every case of depression, burnout, and even suicide (yes, there are people in the academy who seriously consider this option) — all these instances together form empirical evidence that attack your rational scholarly brain. “How can all this happen? All these people worked even harder than I do. I will never get there, no matter what I do….” What your brain then performs, is a cool reframing in and of itself. You start telling yourself:

“Well, o.k., all this seems to be a sign that there is something that they did not have, but I have it. I will make it. But hard work does not seem to be the only thing that I need. Maybe, this inner voice that is making me go on and suffer more and more is something like a “calling” from above. Some power (Jesus, Krishna, Allah…) decided, maybe even long before I was born, that I am supposed to be a professor. And that also explains why I have to work so hard. It is completely clear to me now. All these people, including Jesus and Buddha, they also went through this process of struggling with their calling. They wanted to run away from it. This made them suffer. I just have to accept that following your calling means suffering. Then the suffering will be much more bearable.”

Now: Stop!

Are you just recognizing yourself in some of these thoughts? Let’s recapitulate Phase 2 because it is really essential and quite amazing what your brain is doing here.

What this weird mixture of the work ethic “work hard and you will be one of the chosen ones” (Puritanism) in combination with “you are among the chosen ones and you have to suffer because of this and work hard” (Calvinism) ends up with, no matter which angle you approach it from, is: YOU SUFFER! Are you getting it? You are spending every single day of your (young) life with all these talents you have with: SUFFERING. It does not matter for which reason and who made you do it according to your own belief system. The state of suffering is a fact (at least for many) and I do not have to write more about this because you know exactly what I am talking about and your friends and family — if you still have anything like that — probably tell you so quite frequently. But because, of course, you are one of the chosen ones, you have decided to not listen to them. As you might sometimes even tell them, they have “no idea what it is like to walk that path to become a professor.” Right???

Let me zoom out from this insider perspective to my perspective of looking at this now. And I have to emphasize that the perspective above, of course, does not apply to everyone. For sure, some people never go through these phases simply because they enjoy academic work so much. That is totally fine. For the others, however, who recognize themselves in this situation, this zooming out, this looking at yourself from an outsider’s perspective, is hardly possible anymore. At least, this is what I myself have at times experienced and also witnessed when coaching junior researchers. When I am describing all this here with my somewhat peculiar style and a bit of sarcasm, I can only do so because I have this distance now. When you are in the middle of all this — you do not have this distance. From this perspective where I am now, the decision to suffer is simply stupid. And it does not matter whether it is a “calling” that drives you or some ego issue. What I am saying now will freak you out but here it is: It is your decision to suffer.

Phase 3: Accept suffering as an unavoidable career fact. How can anyone who knows the system be so brutal to say this, you might be asking? As the doctoral candidate in her response to my e-mail survey also mentioned in her feedback to my questions, hardly anyone would “consciously decide to leave academia.” Most people want to stay but then most of them have to leave… Remember what I wrote above? This is Phase 3 of the socialization process. Not only do you think that the professorship itself is outside your sphere of influence, you generalize this to the point where every step of your career and all decisions relating to it become a matter of “this is what happens to me” or “this is what others decide.” I am sorry, but this is bullshit. And it is not me who needs to tell you. There was a purpose why I wrote this long story at the beginning. Do you remember where you started? You started with a conscious decision that you are the master of your actions if working hard enough. And where are you now?

The reason why people end up believing that they are victims of the system — and in many cases they are — is because they see no alternatives. And I mean: NO alternatives, 0. After all, they have invested all time and energy in their scholarly “career.” In fact, this career has never really happened if you do not make it to the position you wanted or at least finish your PhD. But they do not see this. What kicks in is sunk cost fallacy. This means you get yourself deeper and deeper into trouble because you think that the cost for all the time and energy is just too high and you therefore need to go on and on because, otherwise, all this would have made no sense! This is the phase when things really go downhill.

Phase 4: Sick and tired. With “downhill,” I do not mean that people who walk that path never actually end up in a professorship position — some of them do. That is not even what I care about. I care about the lifetime they lose on the way. They cannot get it back, never. And it leaves its mark on them, usually for their entire lifetime. How can you tell? Here are a few “symptoms” that I am pretty sure you at least know from grad school peers or professors:

Does any of this sound familiar? Oh, yes, right — but if it is a “calling,” what can you do? If you make it to the top, all this will pay off. Sorry, but if you have not gotten the message yet. What I am trying to tell you in this article is: THERE IS NO CALLING that is called: Professorship. It is a MYTH. There is something like a “mission” that is not a myth, however. But this is not related to any specific position. A position is a professional role you take and it consists of different activities that you are supposed to do. Some people give a shit about this because they simply want to have a great life and money buys you the freedom to have this.

If, and that is usually the case, especially with humanities students, you want to leave a mark by changing the world, that is also great. I encourage you to pursue your mission. But you know what? You have to find it first. Because what the myth of the professorship as a calling has done to you is that you have never really tried to find your real mission or purpose (and yes, I am aware this is another spiritual term here but it is at least also used in business, i.e., a rather secular world). How can that be? I will spend the remainder of this article explaining what a “mission-driven” occupation can be and how you can find it based on some practical exercises. This will also fix your problem of being stuck.


Reflection Questions

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