Academia, in general, is not a noble profession. It’s a job like any other, really. More accurately, it’s a precarious career track where people vie for positions and try to climb the hierarchy like everyone else in every other profession. The term ‘noble’ implies a class hierarchy, as if everyone who engages in academic pursuits gets to claim a higher rank by default. But academia is nothing if not a hierarchy where most people are on the bottom. And rank, to invoke another meaning, smells like shit.
All this means that you are not better than other people because you are studying to become a scholar of Susquehannan Squirrel Squalor Studies. Your work is not more important than other people’s work. Your daily thoughts are not more brilliant than other people’s thoughts. Anyone who is conscious, I would argue, lives a life of the mind. You don’t care more about the search for truth (or questioning the epistemological basis for such a thing) than others because you have a PhD. You don’t care more about reading and writing than other people who read and write care about it. And, no, you don’t deserve autonomy or a decent living or prestige any more than the guy who delivers your mail deserves those things.
If you are a grad student, you are just someone who is trying to get a job doing a particular thing. This is perfectly legitimate. The only difference is that academia has even higher rates of having the door slammed in your face than other professions. (I even hate to use the word ‘profession’ because it sounds, well, like some kind of noble endeavor, when it isn’t. It’s a job.) Why am I bothering to make the point that graduate school is not a noble pursuit? Because if academia is a job like any other, then you can leave that job when you don’t like it anymore. It’s not like you are walking away from your one true calling (that’s what I should have called this blog post: Academia Is Not A Calling). You are simply changing jobs, getting rid of a career you don’t like (or that won’t have you) and doing something else. It doesn’t even matter what that something else is right now. What matters is that you don’t fall into the trap of believing that academia is a noble pursuit that requires sacrifice of money, sanity, or relationships. You’re not a monk for Christ’s sake.