I think that Jeremy is right: if you feel like working at McDonald’s is better than graduate school, then you should leave. And it is offensive to people who hear graduate students and professors whining about our lives. Beyond just the offense, I think that we do ourselves a great disservice by continuing the meme of irrelevance.
In the meme of auto-voice-generated movies about becoming an academic the repeated theme is that we write obscure articles in obscure journals that no one reads. In other words, our lives and our work is worthless. Why, then, are we surprised when Tom Coburn threatens to cut funding to the NSF or, as Brayden points out on that other blog,* states look to make professors “accountable” and threaten to cut funding to public institutions that don’t meet those metrics. I mean, seriously, if we give the impression that our research doesn’t matter, why should taxpayers believe that it is?
This is something that has constantly irked me since I started graduate school. I attended a state institution for graduate school from a state that was hurting before the latest economic crisis; now it is close to being devastated. All but one year I was in graduate school, my salary was funded (or subsidized) by either the taxpayers of the state or federal taxpayers through teaching salary, fellowships, and federally-funded research assistantships. When I heard people complain about the need to explain why their research is important to people outside of academia or that non-academics could “never understand” their work, this really got under my skin. While I understand that my research, which tends to lean towards understanding the role and potential benefits of public policy, is conducive towards this stance, I am still shocked by the sense that people feel offended that they have to explain the value of their work to the people who help pay their salary. Like Chris Uggen, I believe that it is important that we “make ourselves useful” regardless if we are in public or private institutions (though, arguably, especially if we are in public ones).
If we don’t start explaining the value of our work to others, then state legislators will start doing it for us. I guarantee you that we will all regret not explaining the value of our work if we leave it to those legislators with an axe to grind to explain what we are worth.