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I Was Toiling in Academia and Going Nowhere . . . So I Decided to Do Something (Part 1)

The problem? So much of my professional success was in the hands of "gatekeepers."

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by Norman Eng in Blog, Business, Education, Publishing
November 2, 2019 12 comments

I’m supposed to say that teaching is rewarding.

Or that the life of a professor—where you study the thing you love as a career (and get paid for it!)—is a dream.

But the better description is toiling. I spent all my time doing the hard work that’s expected of an adjunct, or any non-tenured, professor to get ahead.

You know, writing research articles and books. Conducting studies. Refereeing journal articles. Getting on panels and committees. Presenting papers. Conducting workshops.

They’re supposed to help, right? But I wasn’t feeling it. Everything was taking so damn long. Here’s what I mean.

Working in Academia

Let’s start with publishing. The first book I wrote was a textbook update. As an “acknowledged author,” I was naturally paid less than the two main authors who wrote the earlier editions. I was thrilled just to get in.

The painstaking process to update each chapter, send back to the editor, and make additional edits took a year and a half. This was, after all, a 350-page textbook. By the time the seventh edition came out, it was two years later. For one book.

It isn’t much different with journal articles. Not counting the actual planning and writing, submitted articles took months to peer review. Up to a year before seeing it in print. That’s a lifetime in the age of the internet.

Same with grant and conference proposals. For the annual American Education Research Association (AERA) conference, I started planning and writing my workshop proposal last May, submitted it in July, waited for confirmation in October (which I got), prepare the workshop speech the next few months, and then actually present the following April in 2020. So, the whole process takes 12 months.

Just to add one line to my CV.

When I multiplied that by other conference submissions, it made me question the process. Is the traditional model for academia success—i.e., the one where I spend years researching, publishing, and teaching to get tenure—still relevant?

Stop complaining! I told myself. That’s what you signed up for. That’s how academia works. That’s how the best scholars succeed!

But skepticism countered those thoughts. The tenure-track model may have worked back when my father came of age as an economics professor in the 1970s and 80s. He did everything he was supposed to—presented at conferences, researched, wrote books and articles, created new academic initiatives, and chaired the department. And he’s lead a comfortable life.

Is it different now?

My 78-year-old mentor once told me, “Norman, when I got my PhD, I had five job offers in my back pocket.” Now, it’s not unusual to have up to 450 applicants for one position. So basically I’m not just competing with locals in New York City but also the hundreds of others attracted to building a career here.

The imperative to publish merely adds to the pressure. Fewer than one percent of submitted manuscripts are published (1). High-impact journals, according to publishing giant Elsevier, accept less than 10 percent of the articles submitted (although the acceptance ratio for special issues or special topic sections is higher).

No wonder productivity anxiety is a “thing” among academics.

And then there are the other professional obligations, like serving on committees and writing recommendations. “It’s SO hard to be effective in the classroom when your time is increasingly being directed toward support for special initiatives/programs rather than toward class preparation,” one professor plainly told me.

Another instructor confided that she couldn’t write student recommendations anymore. Not because she didn’t want to help, but because they took too much time to do properly. The effort put in is little short of pure altruism, as one professor wrote in Chronicle Vitae. I totally get it. Don’t hate me because I’ve resorted to having certain students draft their own recommendations during a particularly busy grading period.

Teaching and “professoring” was more exhausting than my previous 9-5 office job. At least as a marketing executive my weekends were my own. There were clear boundaries.

Getting Paid in Academia

No one goes into academia for the money. Executives over time make a lot more; I traded $100 Kobe steaks for school cafeteria sandwiches. So it’s not about the money per se. But still, the lack of compensation for all that work felt . . . off.

When I got my first book contract as a contributing textbook author, I was fine earning less. There is, after all, a difference between updating a textbook (as I did) and starting it from scratch. So the 1.9 percent royalty rate wasn’t a surprise (albeit ridiculous). But why did my veteran co-authors earn only 5.6 and 7.5 percent, respectively? A combined fifteen percent rate meant for every textbook dollar earned, Author #1 would get about nickel and Author #2 would get 7.5 cents. I’d get two pennies.

To put it in context, I recently received a royalty check for $190 (gross) covering sales for the first half of 2019.

For two years’ worth of work (2). Hundreds of hours.

As I continued digging into the time and effort spent on other similar endeavors—like refereeing articles, running workshops, and giving professional advice—I grew more disheartened.

Hugh Gusterson’s story in the Chronicle of Higher Education probably illustrated my frustration best. As an MIT professor, he once set up a meeting with a woman who contacted him for grad school advice. Having spoken with him for 45 minutes, she ended by asking, “How much do I owe you?”

As a therapist, she was shocked that academics don’t generally bill for their expertise. It was a light bulb moment for Dr. Gusterson:

When I look at the work I do as an academic social scientist and the remuneration I receive, I see a pattern that makes little sense. This is especially the case with regard to publishing. If I review a book for a newspaper or evaluate a book for a university press, I get paid, but if I referee an article for a journal, I do not … But I get paid nothing directly for the most difficult, time-consuming writing I do: peer-reviewed academic articles. In fact a journal that owned the copyright to one of my articles made me pay $400 for permission to reprint my own writing in a book of my essays.

When I became an academic, those inconsistencies made a sort of sense: Academic journals, especially in the social sciences, were published by struggling, nonprofit university presses that could ill afford to pay for content, refereeing, or editing. It was expected that, in the vast consortium that our university system constitutes, our own university would pay our salary, and we would donate our writing and critical-reading skills to the system in return.

Yet these for-profit publishing behemoths, like Elsevier, Taylor & Francis, and Wiley-Blackwell were making huge sums of money. Let’s put it this way: in 2010, Elsevier’s scientific publishing arm reported profits of $900 million+ on over $2 billion in revenue, which places it higher than Apple, Google, or Amazon’s margins that same year.

And all of the work on the backs of volunteer peer-reviewers.

As I read Dr. Gusterson’s experience, I started to realize my experiences weren’t unique. For one, I found that the industry average royalty rate was abysmal—anywhere from 5 to 15 percent.

That’s just the way it is, I told myself. In the book industry and in academia. Everyone is in the same boat.

Yet I kept wondering about this status quo. Should I simply accept the way things were? I kept thinking about how established systems like academia perpetuated a “toiling” mentality: you do the work, and over a period of time, you will be rewarded. In some cases, six to ten years for tenure.

At that point in 2016—four years into my middling higher ed career (and fourteen years in education in general)—a light-bulb moment struck.

From “Waiting to be Chosen” to “Choosing Myself”

Gatekeepers in the academic world have all the power. Journal editors decide the aims and scope of articles. My scholar peers decide whether my journal article is approved. Grant committees decide if my proposals merit funding. Publishing houses decide if my book idea will float. Hiring committees decide if I get that job.

So much depends on being chosen.

This led to more questions—about life and professional success in general.

Like, what happens to the hundreds of well-deserving student applicants who don’t get into Ivy League colleges? What about authors with great book ideas who don’t get publishing contracts? Or job candidates who made the final cut for interviews but didn’t get the position?

The answers confirmed what I kind of knew but didn’t want to think about: It’s all a game, like Blackjack. You have some control, sure. But make no mistake, the house makes the rules.  

And their exclusivity only makes us want to play their game—for a chance to “win.” Harvard’s only got 2,000 spots for incoming freshman. And much, much less for tenure-track positions. Same with publishing houses and manuscripts. For most of us, we’re left to fight for scraps.

How can a professional with an advanced degree have so few choices—at least when it comes to the traditional ones? Shouldn’t my doctoral degree open up more opportunities? Yes, it would if I didn’t accept the conventional path. If I didn’t put all my faith in institutions; but instead, if I put more of it on me.

I didn’t want to wait to be chosen anymore. To leave my life to these gatekeepers.

It was time to choose myself.

What if I could leverage my advanced degree and my expertise to help people directly? Bypass the gatekeepers and do it the way I thought was best?

That’s when I decided to publish my next book on my own. And I’ve never looked back.


Read Part 2 of 2 now: How Self-Publishing Freed Me from the Bonds of Academia (and Why YOU Should Consider It Too)

Do you ever feel like you toil endlessly in academia? Or feel frustrated that your success is in the hands of others? Leave a comment below.


(1) This rate goes up significantly if you make it to full manuscript stage

(2) To be fair, I’ve earned up to $3,500 in previous half-years when the book launched. Time for a new edition!

12 Comments
  1. Chrysta D. says:

    very timely post! a lot resonated with me – esp about the articles and the recommendations. I’m looking forward to part 2 and how self publishing helped you. I need inspiration–and perhaps this will give me the push!!

  2. DPT says:

    I woke up this morning to your missive and boy it really hit home! I am one of the few PhDs who doesn’t have job insecurity and gets paid on the higher end (I am at a top 50 business school) but the feelings you described are nonetheless all the same for me and have been since I was a doc student 10 years ago. After 15 years in business, I thought this job would be a rewarding way to cap off my working years but it has been so disappointing that every day I think what do I have to do to quit this.

    1. Norman Eng says:

      My friend, stay tuned. Next post I’ll talk about one way you can leverage your expertise (in whatever discipline you’re in) to make your PhD work for you, rather than the other way. Glad to hear from you!

  3. H. Adams says:

    Dear Norman,
    This is an eye-opening article about what you do to become a full-time faculty member. You are very clever to write books and ebooks.
    I was asked the other day what I wanted as a professor and I said to continue as an adjunct.

    1. Norman Eng says:

      I hear you! I get why some plan to remain as an adjunct; some do it to focus on the teaching; others (like me) hope to use it as a stepping stone to tenure. Many adjuncts I know are supplementing their work with a book nowadays.

  4. Terri Webster Schrandt says:

    Wow, I knew academia was hard work, but it’s sad to read about the horrible royalties. As a part-time university lecturer with a master’s teaching as my second act after retirement, I am happy just teaching. No advising, publishing or meetings! I’m all about self-publishing, too, Norman, and putting the finishing touches on a fitness book I hope to launch soon! I’m pleased to see your earnings and I’m sure you will continue to be successful.

    1. Norman Eng says:

      So glad to hear your self-publishing endeavor. Would love to help in any way possible – email me!

  5. Lynn says:

    You have your finger on the pulse right now. A colleague and I have been discussing this for a few weeks because my school publishes dissertations immediately for all to access and forces us as candidates to sign over our intellectual property. We spend years crafting a dissertation and then an institution gets to distribute it in a database that is not free for non-academics (which is a commercial sale technically) and we do not see anything from It, besides our name. ProQuest takes 90% of every sale if you publish with them so it brings me to a crossroad. I said why should I not self-publish my work. It’s mine and I have the right. This way I avoid, in principle, an institution stealing my intellectual property in the guise of promoting me.

    1. Norman Eng says:

      Lynn, this really can get hairy. I’m certainly no expert in this matter, but one could argue that universities have an interest in maintaining a partnership with ProQuest (which gives institutions exposure) and that doctoral candidates benefit from university and government resources (instruction, guidance, research, funding, etc.) that therefore make the dissertation a product of multiple parties (particularly if the study is funded). I do agree with the overall right to question convention where publishers/institutions appear to overly benefit from the scholars’ work. I wonder, is it possible to do both? Allow Proquest to publish the dissertation and then still self-publish on a different, yet related topic?

  6. Eugene says:

    Norman as usual you nailed it! You eloquently put into words what took me a long time to realize, “don’t rely on others to have your best interests at heart.” I know most of us don’t do what we do ‘just’ for compensation, but it’s become shamefully obvious that many institutions we serve are taking advantage of that fact.
    Bottom line: I think every academic needs a passive income side hustle…or two; because you never know when you may come to work and find, “your services are appreciated, but no longer needed.”

    1. Norman Eng says:

      You’re in for a treat, Eugene! Will reveal soon how I used self-publishing to leverage passive income into a side business! Thanks for writing.

  7. David Sippio says:

    I am a new person transitioning into academia. It is great to see and read the varying degree of insight behind the curtain. I appreciate the candor and options to explore it keeps one from getting stuck in the process.

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7 PROVEN STEPS TO PLANNING, TEACHING, & ENGAGING YOUR STUDENTS

A Quick-Start Guide

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