Looking for a Purpose in Life

After posting on David Rubinstein’s remarks on his “cushy life” as a sociology professor at a public university, I read these remarks by some of Rubinstein’s colleagues at the University of Illinois, along with a response from Rubinstein.

To me, the underlying issue in Rubinstein’s article was his failure to find a purpose to his life at work. To go into the office, year after year, doing the very minimum to stay afloat in your classes, to be teaching Wittgenstein to a bunch of 18-year-olds who just don’t care, to write that “my main task as a university professor was self-cultivation”—that’s got to feel pretty empty.

For awhile you can keep busy by playing the game, getting published and promoted, but that gets exhausting, and at some point you reach a level where you’re not going any further. One option is to shift and become more of a team player, but there’s not much point of that if you’re working in an organization with people you dislike and with goals you don’t respect. It’s great to be part of a team and not so fun to feel left out.

Work life doesn’t have to have a sense of purpose—lots of people work 9-5 and live for the weekends. But being a professor is supposed to be more than just a paycheck. Not many people would go to the trouble of writing a Ph.D. thesis in sociological theory just for the purpose of getting a cushy job.

What happened to Rubinstein is something that I’ve seen happen to a lot of other people with Ph.D.’s: at some point they get a feeling that their research has no real point and they can’t really motivate themselves to go further. That’s fine. The question is what do do next.

See here for more (including the thoughts of an atheist-hating pundit).

[Cross-posted at the Monkey Cage]

Andrew Gelman

Andrew Gelman is a professor of statistics and political science and director of the Applied Statistics Center at Columbia University.