Monday, April 11, 2016

4 Years Later: Lauren's Update

Hello, post-academic world. It's been awhile since I rapped at ya. After HTLA published our book,  we all got busy with our real and regular lives and the website languished. After a few years of paying for hosting without adding content, we decided to migrate to a free site (tada) so the content is still available for the searching grad school quitta.

The book is still available too, by the way.

I look back on my quitting time as turbulent, emotional, messy, and necessary. I cringe a little when I read my diatribes against the academy, even though I still agree with the fundamentals of those arguments. My wounds were raw. Now they're healed. Academia is, and always will be, in my past, but it will also always be a part of me (for better or for worse). My interest in the debates about the future of academics is almost nil. Change is inevitable, and from my outside vantage, I have no real way to make impact on the future of higher ed or the academy or whatever. I'm waiting to see how things shake out before my daughters go to college in about 10 years, if they go to college.

I don't miss grad school. I don't wish I'd stayed. My one regret is that I probably won't teach again. I still miss the classroom.

After finishing my last year in grad school, I took a job at the university where I'd been enrolled as an academic advisor for freshmen. I thought that this would work for me because I love students. I learned a lot about higher ed administration, institutional structure, and programs of study I had known nothing about. I connected with some students really well, and I do think I helped a lot of kids. But ultimately, three things made me restless in that position early on.

1. Boredom. Once I mastered the bureaucratic rules, the job became very repetitive. Sure, there were extra responsibilities one could take on, but they added to workload and came with no direct benefits. To get the promotion that would earn you more money for those extras, you had to work there for 5 years.

2. Frustration with students. I love teaching and the classroom, and I did connect with some kids and help some through really tough times. But with advising, you get all of the annoying side of students with few of the joys of classroom interaction. You get the emails that ask the same questions over and over again. Missed deadlines. Refusal to see the writing on the wall. Apathy. Eventually I started getting burned out and not caring as much as a good advisor ought to.

3. Money. I genuinely didn't know how I was going to pay for summer childcare my second year at the advising center, when my daughters were at a new daycare in our new town. My entire salary would go towards that cost, when most of it was already taken up by student loans. 

For this reason, I was pursuing my teaching certification in secondary ed and planning to move on from advising within a year, if possible. I was making lesson plans and visiting schools. The pay would have been the same. My only concern was committing to the lifestyle of teaching, which is your entire life, especially in the beginning. Nevertheless, I knew advising wasn't for me.

At that point, I had a friend contact me and ask if I was interested in doing consultant work for the test development company she worked for. (I live in the midwestern hub of assessment design). I gratefully agreed and was able to earn enough through consulting to pay for summer childcare. My job was to find reading passages for a college readiness exam. I was surprised to find that not only was it a bit fun, but I also had a knack for it. I told her that if there was ever a position open that I would be interested, and lo and behold, they had a spot open in their English Language Arts development team. I applied and, eventually, was accepted. After two years in advising, I gratefully left for a job that draws on my background in American Studies and literacy education and pays me well. I'm still not rich--in fact, summer childcare is looming in my mind again--but we are now down to maybe 1 or 2 times a year when we feel utterly screwed, vs every single month.

My work in assessment is enjoyable. It's intellectually challenging. I spend the day reading and writing about subjects across the spectrum. My classroom experience and grad studies make me a strong contributor to the team. I wouldn't trade that; I wish I'd done a master's or two in quick and compact succession and finished up earlier, although it's hard to justify any debt.

I'm certainly never bored: I've worked here for 18 months and still feel like a newbie in many ways. There's plenty to do, and I (as I did with advising) love that when I leave the office, I'm done for the day. I get to do some travel with my job, which is a huge treat, and continue to do professional development in my fields of study without being super academic about it (I ain't publishing). All in all, I couldn't have asked for a better outcome, barring becoming a world-famous and rich novelist. But it didn't happen magically or overnight, and I never would have expected assessment to be a good fit for me. In a lot of ways, the advising job taught me lessons about my working self that I never could have learned in grad school or teaching.

I realized after leaving advising that no entry-level job in higher ed--whether teaching level, admin, or whatever--would pay enough for me to make a living. It wouldn't have been worth it to spend however many extra years on a PhD to make less money than we could have lived on, or the same amount as I make now. I'm glad I got out when I did.

I read voraciously. I'm addicted to audio books. I've taken up drawing and calligraphy. I play Go Gummy Drop probably too obsessively. I'm attending a writing retreat in two weeks. I'm reading to my daughters' classes next week. I was a caucus chair in my precinct this fall. My life outside of work is rich. I'm still smart. I'm still sharp.

I still think that hardly anyone should sign up for graduate studies. I think every grad student should have a plan B, C, and D and think very concretely about the kind of life they want to live later on, beyond our fantasies about bookshelves and conferences and whatnot. If you're thinking about quitting, I think you should probably quit. If you're worried about what will happen after quitting, I think you can take lessons from JC, Currer, and I that it will neither be easy nor will it be catastrophic. That life rolls on, often without a grand design, but that's ok. Once you get through the turbulent shift in life and mind when you're in the process of leaving, I believe you will find that life on the other side is perfectly fine, and that you've saved yourself a lot of grief.

JC and Currer will share their stories, too. We hope that we continue to be of assistance to those of you doing that frantic midnight googling. Our overriding message is, and always have been: everything's gonna be all right.


  1. Just found your blog, and it is nice to read your retrospective. I am in the midst of the shift, having just finished a PhD, had 0 success on the market, and now looking for a non-academic job. I am glad to know you can speak about healing and making enough money to support your family, as those things are hard to envision for me right now.

  2. Hi Tim -- welcome to the post-ac club. After the freakout subsides, you will get your feet under you. There are so many resources available now that you'll be in good company. Keep us posted!