A Fate Worse Than Graduate School (Turn the Page)

Originally posted by O Ceallaigh on the discontinued blog Felloffatruck Publications, 1 March 2007. Reposted here, with updates, in support of a retrospective currently ongoing at the Dude & Dude site.


In the middle part of the 1970s, just about when I started my Ph.D. education, the bottom dropped out of the market for scientists.

In the late 50s and 60s, in the years after Sputnik, a Ph.D. in the sciences was a magic talisman. Graduates were being snapped up by universities as fast as they could be robed. Research funds, though never plentiful, still were relatively easy to get, and a single award could build you a nice laboratory and get a whole lot of work done. Not to mention large buckets of brownie points with university administrators.

Then came Vietnam and its aftermath. And the Golden Fleece Awards. Science came to be seen as just another tool of The Man. And besides, there was this nasty little thing called the Law of Supply and Demand. The schools had become too good at churning out scientists. Now, there were simply too many of us running around.

This was when Ph.D. programs started getting longer. From three years to four. Five. Six. Seven. Ten. I’m not making this up, Dave. When the stipends for teaching and research assistantships started shrinking. And when the phenomenon of the “postdoctoral fellow” appeared on the academic horizon.

Postdocs. The itinerant preachers of the sciences, willing to work long hours for janitorial wages in the hopes that the resulting slew of research papers with our names on them might at last win for us the coveted, and increasingly inaccessible, title of Assistant Professor.

Anywhere.

Gone were the dreams of a four-year doctoral dissertation followed by a choice job at the University of California at Berkeley. Now, six years in the Ph.D. and four more as a postdoc might win you a job at an obscure Baha’i college in North Dakota, teaching courses completely unrelated to your research.

And we were caught. Our choices were made before the laws of economics put the hammer down on us. We could skulk off in disappointment or follow our dreams to the bitter end. Most of us stayed. We would joke among ourselves that, if people we knew were going through a bad stretch, they were suffering “a fate worse than graduate school”.

We would travel from laboratory to laboratory, meeting to meeting, giving seminars, talking with people, presenting our scholarly wares, telling ourselves that we were knights on the vanguard of the public good when what we were really doing was selling ourselves like any deodorant commercial.

And then one day, as a bunch of us were traveling in a crowded car to yet another scientific meeting, a Bob Seger song came on the radio.

Turn The Page.

And I said, “That’s us!” And I rewrote the lyrics to reflect the experiences of a stressed-out science graduate student on the road to that Baha’i college in North Dakota. If fortune favored.

I heard that song again on the radio in my car the other day. As I was waiting on news that would decide whether I would, once again, be on that highway. Giving seminars, talking with people, presenting my scholarly wares, selling myself like any deodorant commercial. Whether I would be returning to the days when I first heard that song, and adapted the lyrics to those who feared fates worse than graduate school …

On a sun-baked superhighway on the Indiana plain,
The heat bedews your body and the engine rocks your brain,
You rehearse your presentation and its concluding refrain.

You find yourself reviewing all the costs that lie ahead,
For the meeting’s registration fee and dormitory bed,
You fear that you’ve not done enough to stay out of the red.

Well here I am, on the podium,
Here I am, up on the stage,
Here I go, playing the brain again,
There I go. Turn the page.

Well you walk into the meeting hall, looking for a friend,
But they’re all in the practice rooms with no time they can lend,
The strangers greet each other: “Do you remember when …?”

Mostly they don’t notice you. Sometimes though they do,
“I’d love to stay and talk, but George’s paper’s in a few”.
Your own’s not ’til tomorrow; you wish that it was through.

Well here I am, on the podium,
Here I am, up on the stage,
Here I go, playing the brain again,
There I go. Turn the page.

When you speak you cannot tell if they’re asleep or they’re awake,
If they’re paying any heed to all the points that you must make,
You pour out your wit and energy, hoping something takes.

In the small hours of the morning, you sit beside your bed,
With the clamor of the cash-bar party ringing in your head;
You save the day’s last paragraph, remembering what you said.

Well here I am, on the podium,
Here I am, up on the stage,
Here I go, playing the brain again,
There I go. Turn the page.

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