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Thursday, March 02, 2006
Academia in America = Easier?
Last Friday, dear friends of mine arrived in my town from Germany with their two-year old son. "Kurt" has his Ph.D. in my field and studies roughly the same thing I do -- we met at a conference here at Doctoral University in 2002, where we both gave presentations. His wife, "Brigitte," is not an academic but we became close friends when they popped in to visit me when I was in Europe this past November. Their son, "Hans" is only two months younger than ST, and so we all spent a fair amount of time together since Friday keeping Hans occupied and happy as his parents started their transition to life in the U.S. Kurt, Brigitte, and little Hans will live here until the beginning of June, as Kurt has a release from his job in Germany to come and work on his book here in the U.S.
Kurt is several years older than I am. He completed his Ph.D. in 2003. When he, Brigitte, and Hans were at our house this Sunday for dinner, we talked about the differences between academia in the U.S. and in Germany, which are considerable. Kurt began the conversation by asking me about my dissertation, and if I'd collected all of the data I'd hoped to collect while I was in Europe. I told him that although I'd collected a LOT of the data I needed, there was still a lot missing due to the fact that I was only there for a month, that many of the people I'd hoped to talk to were unavailable, and bureaucratic red tape. "Will you still be able to write the dissertation?" he asked, concerned. "Of course!" I responded. "I have a lot to work with now, and if I choose to continue working on this project after I get my Ph.D., I'll simply go back to Europe and collect more data." Kurt looked confused. "How will you publish your book then, if the data is not complete?" It was my turn to be confused. "Book? I'm only writing a dissertation," I said.
Kurt didn't understand the difference. In Germany, at least in my field, doctoral students are not expected to write merely a dissertation, but a book. And in order to actually have their doctoral degree conferred, students have to have a publisher for the book. Kurt explained that, at his university, he had to physically bring copies of his published book to his university library before they would grant his degree. An unpublished manuscript = no Ph.D.
I then started to ask Kurt about his job, which is at a high school in Germany. It is a job he despises, but it is the only one he could find. German high schools are more "advanced" than American high schools, with students learning at a level Americans would recognize as the first few years of college. People with Ph.Ds often teach at high schools for this reason. Kurt wants desperately to teach at a university, however, and so is working on his Habilitation. He described the Habilitation as a sort of "second Ph.D." (Roughly translated by me: Habilitation = hell.) The Habilitation (for which he is currently writing his second book) will allow him to teach at a university in Germany -- provided that he can find a position, which is the most difficult part of the entire process given the small number of universities in Germany and the bulky hierarchy one must wade through in order to even be given a chance. Kurt says that although he's wanted to teach at a university all of his life, the chances that he'll actually be able to do it before he's 40 -45 are slim.
This strenuous process infects every part of Kurt and Brigitte's life, right down to their decision to have a family. I spent a lovely day with Brigitte and little Hans yesterday, and Brigitte told me that although she would love at least one or two more children, Hans will likely be an only child. She said that Kurt's job prospects are so uncertain that he doesn't feel comfortable having more children, especially not in a waning German economy. Brigitte works, too (although she's been off since Hans was born almost three years ago), but says that her income would not be enough to support the family in the event that Kurt's quest for a university position fails.
Speaking with them over the past few days has made me feel incredibly guilty for whining so much about how difficult and stressful life in academia in America can be. I'm stressed about finishing a stupid dissertation that at times seems like less an academic endeavor than a gigantic hoop to jump through while Kurt labors over his second book. I'm gearing up to start teaching at a university this fall, something I've always wanted to do, and Kurt's chances for doing the same are uncertain for at least the next decade. I'm worried about how I'll fit ST and future children into my tenure-dependent future, and Kurt and Brigitte have already ruled future children out. It makes me feel like a bit of a lightweight, actually, and like a big whiner. I know that the systems are entirely different and that there are distinct advantages and disadvantages to both, but right now I'm feeling quite lucky to have chosen this career path in this country.