Bifocal Glasses: Too old for an academic career?

Bifocal Glasses: Too old for an academic career?

By Marco Lazzarotti

Meme of jack nicholson with crazy hair. Text says "Don't worry about old age, it doesn't last long."

We have a tendency to perceive the passage of time as traced by the path of an idealized academic career. In this vision, an academic career is perceived as an obstacle race, or perhaps an elimination race—with well-defined paths and obstacles carefully laid out before us. As we inexorably move down this path, we are so focused on the goals and obstacles ahead that we forget to notice as our life—and our youth—comes to an end. After the conquest of the doctorate, which already kicked many of the contestants out of the race, the survivors next compete for positions as postdocs, adjuncts, and assistant professors—always hoping they will make it to the finish line and land a coveted position as a tenured full professor. Everyone shares the same dream, but only a few will ever reach the final stage of this elitist competition.

The big problem that we face as scholars is that this system shows no signs of abating. Only a select few can ever hope to achieve this increasingly unobtainable goal, yet the system gives us all the same false hope: that we might one day become one of the select few. That one day we will become that special someone: receiving generous travel grants, prestigious scholarships, project funding, requests for international co-operation, and offers to publish with other leading professors in books put out by prestigious publishing houses. Although, in recent years, it has become increasingly possible to find jobs applying anthropological knowledge outside of the academy, I came of age at a time when the discipline only seemed to exist in university departments. For many of my generation, an academic career seemed like the only possible choice.

What is most insidious about this system is that, even though it is designed so that only a select few can ever succeed, it gives us the illusion of hope by dolling out small rewards over time: scholarships, post-docs, adjunct positions, etc. In this way it works much like a slot machine at a casino, making sure we win just enough that we don’t quit the race. Thus, the discipline of anthropology—as currently institutionalized—creates both the desire fore an academic career and the illusion of being able to fulfill such a desire if we are smart enough and work hard enough. By doing this, it steals from us any sense of aging or of the passage of time.

One of the side effects of this situation, and perhaps what makes our educational systems most resemble “brain factories,” is that the development of our academic careers is tethered to our biological cycles. Even if I’m not that “old”, aging in academia is a topic that has always been close to my heart. I have a family (wife and child) and I started my anthropological studies quite late compared to the age at which other scholars normally begin their career. Now I find myself in that stage of a career in which it is necessary to move around the world and be ready to adapt myself to the various calls for position, which usually vary from six months to the year. This is a system designed for relatively young people without family commitments (especially not those with school-age children). This has made me aware of how academic careers are designed so that different chronological ages are supposed to proceed apace with certain stages of this race. My own experience of a mismatch between my age and my career has made me especially aware of the fact that I am getting old and that, with each passing year, I have less energy than I had the year before. I am also less willing to use this limited energy to chase fixed-term contracts.I would rather devote my time to the things that matter most to me: my family and my research. When combined with neoliberal reforms which have undermined the welfare state, I find myself increasingly anxious about my old age.

So, if this game is rigged against older scholars like myself, why don’t I just quit? The short answer is that my experience doing field research, as well as the relationships I have established with the students I’ve had the pleasure of working with over the years have been rewarding enough to keep me in the game. These few precious pearls I’ve collected from my experiences have been enough to make up my mind not to withdraw from the competition just yet. Moreover, the fact that—while writing this post—I had to switch my glasses to bifocals for the first time in my life, reminds me that time passes for everyone, me as well.


Marco Lazzarotti started his education at the University of Pisa, where he obtained his B.A. and first M.A. in Archaeology. After graduation, in order to expand his horizons, he went to Taiwan, where he studied Chinese language and later obtained a Master Degree in Cultural Anthropology at the National Taiwan University. After that, he decided to move his family to Sierra Leone to contribute to a noble cause as well as to expand his horizons and anthropological perspectives. He is currently lecturing courses at the Department of Ethnology of the University of Heidelberg where he obtained his PhD on 2018.

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