Monday, April 11, 2016

4 Years Later: Kathleen's Update

I'm excited that How to Leave Academia has a new home. As Lauren said, I don't think she, JC, or Jet will post here often, but we wanted to make sure the site remains free and accessible to anyone in need of support or advice. And if you're hungry for more stories of leaving academia, don't forget our Moving On: Essays on the Aftermath of Leaving Academia.

On the heels of Lauren's update, I thought I'd throw my hat into the ring and let you know how things have been panning out for "Currer Bell."

When I started Project Reinvention in 2012, I wrote anonymously. And those early posts show it. They're raw, vulnerable, honest, and angry. But then the New York Times came calling, asking for my real name. They wanted to write about the site and its authors as part of a longer piece on floundering academics. Nifty opportunities like that don't come along that often, and I decided it was worth ditching anonymity to be a part of the piece. Once that story broke, my blogging became more guarded. I even went back and erased some particularly rant-y diatribes against my old employer. It was a day late and a dollar short. Though I'd already quit my job, "SAP" (small academic publisher) moved up my last day the second the NYT story came out. Things have changed a lot since that articled appeared in November of 2013. At that time, I was newly married, unemployed, and my husband, Paul, had a struggling law practice that brought in little income. I don't know what kind of bravery, or insanity, made me quit a job when we had no income coming in, but I know I'm not that bold now.

The posts of 2012-2014 are from someone who felt she had little left to lose. From the despair of not being able to find an academic job, to the shame and misery of being a traveling academic textbook saleswoman, to worries over adequate health care, to never knowing where Paul and I might be living in 6 months, not a lot was going right. Yet, despite all that, there's a lot of happiness in those posts, too. Building a strong relationship, new adventures, and the sense of possibility and reinvention.

As I think about where I am in 2016, I realize two things--1. Now, I have a lot more to lose and 2. SIKE, I kinda ended up back in academia again, oops.

After quitting SAP, I worked as a life coach helping people with a variety of challenges, but much of my coaching boiled down to post-acs and career coaching. I struggled because I felt the post-ac coaching market was predatory (desperate folks low on cash, hiring coaches for guidance felt icky most of the time), so I went in search of a new niche. I dabbled in food coaching/blogging, but never quite felt at home. Eventually, I tired of most of the rhetoric of coaching and self-help.

In February of 2014, I was hired by my current employer. I work in a faculty role in a non-profit institution of higher education. So, after all that struggle, I'm an academic. Go figure. It's not the picture I envisioned when I started graduate school. I don't work at a liberal arts campus covered in ivy. I don't present papers at international conferences. I don't spend my weekends scouring microfiche for mentions of obscure nineteenth-century women writers. Instead, my university operates a lot more like a traditional business. I work pretty regular hours. I don't get summers off. I have no research requirements. Some days I really enjoy my job. Other days, I don't. I like working with students, but I miss scholarship. I love the flexibility of working from home, but I miss course development. Some days the business approach to education reminds me of sales. Some days I can tell I'm making a difference in the lives of non-traditional students who would have been shafted by most traditional universities. I'm learning that career fulfillment is a lot more nuanced than I ever expected. Sometimes I still mourn not being a "true" academic. Other days, I'm thankful I can choose where I want to live, don't have to grade, and don't have to spend my life worrying if I publish another article.

I always thought the biggest success of my life would be my career. I never cared about meeting someone, getting married, or having children. So, I'm routinely shocked that I still haven't quite figured the whole career thing out (despite lots of time and worry) but I'm rocking marriage though it requires nil effort on my part. Isn't life funny?

Paul left private practice and secured a good, stable government job in 2015. It's not flashy and I don't think he'd like to stay there forever, but it's a step in the right direction. We moved from Pittsburgh to Virginia (outside DC). It took us a good long while to sell our house in the Burgh, so money has continued to be tight. But the end appears to be in sight--we should close at the end of April. This means for the first time in my adult life, I'll have a real income and my spouse will have a real income. Two salaries. Two sets of benefits. Two 401ks.  Some mornings I wake up and think "I'm gonna be so rich...." I can't wait to see what life will be like with financial breathing room. Sometimes I toy with getting another degree, or using the extra money to start a side business of some sort. Knowing what it feels like to be close to the financial edge, I'd like to use a chunk of it to improve other people's lives, and so I've started researching food banks, charities, and political groups I care about. As an academic, I always felt my work was "political," but I'm realizing there are lot of opportunities for activism in my life that extend beyond carefully crafted syllabi and articles.

Right now, I spend most of my free time cooking, exploring my new hometown, listening to records, taking long walks, reading a variety of things, and writing. I've got two blogs at work, an existing one with humorous reviews of food TV programming ( and a yet to be started one because I've had a yen to write about my day-to-day life again (

As Lauren said at the end of her post, I've learned "everything's gonna be alright." And, she's right. Who knows where Paul and I will end up eventually, but, meh, in time it'll work all out.

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.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Leaving at the Finish Line: Why I Withdrew from My Last Job Search to Become a Post-Academic


The following is a guest post from Nick Walsh (pseudonym). Nick is a gay, southern-born African American anthropologist who lives with his partner in a major city on the west coast of the US. He is also a first generation PhD who has mentored other PhD students and doctoral recipients of color in official and informal capacities. Before becoming a post-academic, he received several prestigious national fellowships and a competitive postdoc position.

“You are being very unprofessional and I suggest you put your application back in for consideration immediately."

These were the words in an email that came from a highly-respected senior scholar and my postdoc mentor. To this day, those words still sting in an email that I am still not able to read in its entirety, due to its harsh, disciplinary tone. (In fact, it sits in my inbox still, in a special folder.) This scholar was someone who I had respected for quite some time and, in many ways, still do. She had been the author of many cornerstone works on language and inequality, with a push towards working to eradicate inequality on a practical level. Yet her very words sounded like anything but a scholar interested in reproducing an equal academy.  She sent this email to me after I made the decision to withdraw from the short list of a tenure-track position. This was after a successful campus visit, with a perceived support on the faculty for my hire. They seemed to be in love with me, and yet I could not bring myself to feel the same about them and the career they were ensconced in. It was at that moment that I chose to finally make official what had been perhaps unstated for at least a year...

After two years as a postdoc (2010-2012) and another two years as an underemployed contingent faculty member in two institutions (2012-2014), I had become a post-academic. I no longer wanted what academia had to offer, nor did I seek invest my identity in this one small corner of the world. For my postdoc mentor, this change of heart seemed to come from nowhere. I believe this was because we had been out of touch for months at a time, only communicating around my applications that were still active on the academic job market. Outside of these interactions, though, I had been contemplating a post-academic life for a while. So when this moment happened, the choice to leave academia, although not easy, also was a no-brainer at this point. I knew if I didn’t leave then and accepted the tenure track offer, it would only get harder to do so.

During the campus visit, I had an inkling that I just didn't belong in this particular place, but I wanted to be sure. Little did I know that this also was my gut screaming loud and clear that I didn’t belong in academia. This is despite what others around me told me. The following Monday, the faculty were going to meet to vote on who to give the offer to. I knew I had to act fast but skillfully. Thus, I emailed the search committee chair, asking her to remove my name from consideration on the short list.

When I withdrew from the search, I (naively) asked the members of the search committee to keep it confidential. I hoped this would all pass quickly. Instead, the opposite happened. Consider it Murphy’s Law. One of the search committee members emailed my postdoc mentor who had written on my behalf. This faculty member apparently told my postdoc mentor  what I had done. The next day, I received rather extensive email bashings from my postdoc mentor. What came out of these discussions, to which I minimally contributed to with two line responses compared to her novel repsonses, was that, according to my postdoc mentor, I was the department’s first choice for the position. What she saw as entering the coveted royal court of academics was what I saw as the continuation of a few more years of bondage to something I didn't really want to be bonded to. Deep down, I knew it wasn't fair to hire someone who didn't really want to be there and wasn't entirely committed 110% to academia anymore. This was a far cry, indeed, from that ambitious 22-year old PhD student a decade ago.

It was at this moment that I decided for myself that I would no longer pursue the tenure track or any other postdoctoral fellowships. As scary as it felt, it also felt emancipating.

Why Did I Leave? A Mixture of the Usual and the Unusual Reasons
The reasons why I left are familiar to anyone who has read most of the literature and contributions in the post-academic blogosphere. There was a desire, in my early 30s, to have a life with some sense of financial stability after much graduate school-induced financial instability in my 20s. Knowledge may be forever, but, let me tell you, a credit score affects what I can and will be able to do in this lifetime. Additionally, the lonely life of an academic was something that became too much for me. As I would joke to friends during this time, "That great book I want to write will never be able to hug me back or comfort me when I've had a bad day in the department." Yet I told myself repeatedly I was the one who was free. Why? Because I was living the life of the mind. But when I finally got into a relationship with my current partner who is not in academia, I realized for the first time that maybe I wasn't so free.

When you are a gay African American man in a same-sex relationship with a first generation Mexican American who is well established in his non-academic career, things can and do get complicated in trying to live up to this ideal. This complication cuts across participation within both the LGBTQ community in academia, the  community of academics from racial/ethnic underrepresented groups, and the broader academic circle. I was attractive because I was able to help diversify the academy in so many interesting ways. At the same time, I became unintentionally narrowed to this utilitarian purpose in the career. To leave is not just me abandoning a calling. Colleagues construe it also as abandoning a political mission. How dare I, of all people, let down those others who fought for me to have a place in the academy for such selfish reasons! It is this part that constantly weighed heavily on me . If I left, who would be there to help guide future young scholars who found themselves caught up in the politics that come from being a multiply-marginalized person in the academy?

Beyond this, I constantly thought of my own physical safety and that of my partner in any place I might be sent to for a tenure-track position. For many heterosexual and racially-endogamous couples, physical safety is often a taken for granted luxury. For me and my partner, however, we could be a real victim of a hate crime for sexuality (by any racial/ethnic group) or race. Yes, even in this mythical post-racial and post-sexual climate of the US. There would always be the very real chance we could end up in a small town that, despite having a ‘relatively’ liberal university within its city limits (or the superficial appearance of one, at least), the townspeople could have conservative views that make them appear to be from the yesteryears. I also want to have children one day. My concern as a future father of children of a same-sex interracial couple remained very much on my mind. Would the kids be physically and emotionally safe, or the victims of bullying and discrimination from both students and teachers? When I relayed these concerns to my faculty ‘mentors,’ they often told me I was overthinking things. (This I still find strange to this day. How could one be overthinking about the serious implications of a career that provides you and your family with no control over your geographic location?) In essence, I learned that when you are in a relationship and on the market with a non-academic partner, all these issues begin to become very real. Yet I was being advised to not think of these concerns. Put the pursuit of knowledge first, my senior colleagues demanded, at times explicitly and other times implicitly in their advising practices towards me.

How My Relationship Saved My Life
Similar to other stories in the post-academic world, I have to say that being in a long-term relationship with a non-academic saved my life. Although my partner could see that I thrived in academic environment, he also saw the realities of the market and what I had allowed being on the market to do to me (and us) emotionally, physically, and mentally. He constantly reminded me that I had transferable and adaptable skill sets that industry would be happy to have. He also, at times, painfully underscored that, as a 31 year old man, I would need to find better ways of financially co-supporting the household in an area as expensive as where we live. Lecturing until the tenure-track job came along was not going to cut it. Although painful to hear, I couldn’t help but agree. It was because of him that I eventually swallowed my shame and went to visit the career center of my alma mater in Spring 2013. This was during the time I was doing my first lectureship at a local university following my postdoc tenure.

At the center, I remembered feeling guilty about asking about non-academic employment options. It felt like I was giving up on the people who had invested so much in my academic success. I also felt like I was giving up on the mission of diversifying academia. However, the counselor assured me that many PhDs often felt the way I felt. Moreover, she was the first person to tell me that I needed to think about myself now, rather than what my academic colleagues were thinking and saying about me. I told her I could no longer afford to put myself and my partner through the financial instability that we were going through with my lectureships, which were always term-to-term without guarantees. The life of the toiling academic was beginning to be too much. So at that moment, we began the process of changing my CV into a resume.

A few weeks later, she told me the new resume was ready to go out. We had identified jobs that would be suitable for me as an anthropologist, and I went after those jobs everyday with a vengeance. All this happened while I was still lecturing for another year. I even sent out cover letters and resumes in my tight, cramped campus office that I shared with another visiting professor, all right before I would go down to teach. Thus, when I made the decision to officially quit academia in my final year on the job market, I already had a backup plan in place about a year in advance. I just didn't have the guts to actualize it until my former mentor gave me an electronic lashing.

When the email lashing came in Spring 2014, I realized that I could not and would not be a part of an institution that praised and encouraged such dominating behavior that had a very clear message: as a ‘junior scholar,’ I had no control in my life. I knew I needed to take back my life, and I did. What also helped me make this transition much sooner was the vipassana meditation practice that I began in 2011, as well as my local meditation center. Practicing on my own and with my weekly meditation group really encouraged me to listen from within and trust that feeling more than anything else. In what seemed like hours on the meditation cushion, I came face to face with the emotional storm that raged within me. The meditation practice also reminded me to embrace impermanence as the truth of life, which helped me to see that all things can end long before we expect them to--even an academic career. This impermanence also applied to emotions too, for I began to realize during this time, I was not always happy, nor was I always sad or depressed each day of the transition.

Coincidentally, this was also that time I sought out the online post-academic community in the blogosphere. Reading those blogs daily after the campus visit fiasco saved my sanity and provided much needed strength in numbers. These blogs let me know there were other people out there going through my same struggle of unemployment and finding a new identity again. So when the time came to make that jump into the unknown, I did it knowing that what I was feeling was completely legitimate and that there were others who had done it before, surviving just fine.

The Aftermath
After I withdrew from the academic job search, my days included receiving numerous rejections from non-academic job applications across the board; having numerous talks to reassure my partner that things would turn out fine; designing and doing intense home workouts to relieve the stress of it all; finishing up my final semester of teaching; and venting over coffee to whoever would listen. I then came upon what I consider to be a great end and new beginning to my story. A month after my lectureship ended, I got a job offer to be resident anthropologist at a global design thinking firm. In fact, I was hired by another post-academic who had also become disenchanted with academia years before.

Now, I love coming to work everyday. I enjoy interacting with such a diverse workforce that includes people with so many different backgrounds, from business strategists to industrial/service designers. I still get to be an anthropologist and teach, traveling all over the world. However, I have new students now (VPs and CEOs seeking to create more meaningful products and services) and new classrooms (corporate boardrooms). I’ve also reconnected with many of my friends from my undergraduate film school days, which has led to us launching an animated web series. Of course, as you can guess, there’s some anthropological themes in the series, for sure, so I’m getting the opportunity to have an impact through entertainment. If that’s not enough to fill my schedule, I also just started a program to become a certified personal trainer, thus starting my goal of putting my teaching skills to work in helping others reach their wellness goals. This goal is near and dear to my heart because I will always say it was my personal trainers who helped me get through the PhD process, and I’d like to pay it forward.

In terms of the short-term rewards, I love having things like a paycheck that allows me to do more than just survive, an insurance package that doesn't terminate at the end of each semester, and free time at the end of the day and weekends to spend with my partner. Not everything is where it should be yet, though. I'm still paying back the credit card debt that I incurred from my long-time relationship with academia. However, it feels good knowing I can make the payments each month and I take immense joy in seeing my credit score rise. I'm also still involved in academia. I have a non-paying affiliation with a local university, which allows me to publish a paper or two on my own time and conduct my own research (on my own dime, of course). I also work closely with organizations focused on labor issues of contingent faculty because I truly refuse to leave my brothers and sisters behind in the struggle. In working with them, I’m hoping that my future children and their friends will have something to treasure in this changing landscape of higher education. Finally, I volunteer my time at my alma mater to speak on career day events to those who are struggling with leaving academia. Most importantly, I am happy.

So to my postdoc mentor, I express nothing but gratitude. Without her, I would have never had the courage to admit to myself that I was a post-academic long before it materialized externally. I also express thanks to the post-academic community, for your stories continue to remind me that I have the right to be happy about my life stage. Finally, I share my story to let anyone know that it is never too late to change course, even when a tenure-track job is forthcoming. Although there might be some backlash, the ultimate reclaiming of your authentic happiness is much too important to sacrifice for the purpose of making other people’s dreams of you come true, even if they are dreams that you once shared but no longer do, regardless of the reasons.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Job-Seeker, Market Thyself! Thoughts on Not Finding My "Brand"

The following is a guest post from Sarah S. If you would like to contribute your own post about leaving academia, finding new employment, or any other topic, please contact us!

A current trend in career advice is to build your “brand” in order to better “sell” yourself to prospective employers and control your career trajectory.(*) In this digital age, the thinking goes, employers can find out all about people online and it behooves the jobseeker/career builder to stand out from the crowd with focused, personalized branding. I mean, if it works for soda and tennis shoes and software companies, why not you?

Transitioning academics likewise receive this branding advice. In fact, the difficulty of translating academic experience to employers in the “real world” makes concise, coherent branding particularly attractive. It can also supposedly demonstrate a post-academic’s business acumen as well, her awareness of market realities outside the Ivory Tower. I get these arguments. They make sense to me. So why am I so unable to discover and package my brand?

The Academy, at least in the Humanities, traditionally eschews this kind of corporate speak. And yet I was never so well branded as at the end of my PhD in English. In fact, I’d spent ten years honing and narrowing myself into an incredibly specific area and then spent hours perfecting my “elevator speech,” as well as articulating my philosophy of teaching (student-focused!) and area of expertise (British and American modernism, with an emphasis on the novel, trauma, and war!). I even had multiple distillations of my dissertation argument. First, the formal: “The Great War was so unprecedented it disrupted traditional mourning rituals, with their attendant resolution, leading to a traumatizing state of irresolvable mourning that I call ‘traumatic grief.’ This state caused post-war novelists from Britain and the US to represent the war as causing a widespread sterility, an inability or unwillingness to procreate, that manifests in characters, themes, and narrative itself.” And then this version, honed over beers and tator-tots, “World War I was major and it made people feel bad on their insides and then broke their baby makers.” By the end of the PhD I was this scholar-teacher—squished, narrowed, and branded within an inch of my life.

As we know, all the branding in the world can’t fix academia’s job issues and so after a fruitless year “on the market” I embraced my decision to stop applying for tenure track jobs and become post-ac, alt-ac, what-have-you. But one cannot transform on openness alone and magically transition from what she was to what she will become.

I tried the branding thing. I really did. I researched various careers. I participated in online communities. I did informational interviews. I wrote and rewrote (and rewrote and rewrote) my resume and cover letters. And I discovered a couple of things. First, getting a job is hard, ya’ll, even outside the Academy. Second, after the corseting I experienced by the end of my PhD, I didn’t want to “brand” myself, to limit myself to a single identity. Sure, I attempted to market my experience and goals for a handful of different career paths. Yet whenever I seemed to encounter a point where I really ought to buckle down and choose something, I balked.

I think there were several reasons for this. On some level, I was (I still am) gun shy; I put all my eggs in the academic basket and I remained wary of making the same mistake again with a new career path. I was also still connected to my identity as a scholar and teacher, and even though I was rationally comfortable with my decision to leave academia, the emotional and personal effects could not be wished away. When you spend years becoming a thing you cannot simply cease being it. Surely, as the soldier finds civilian clothes a little too constrictive and the transformed princess still wants to flap her goose wings so too the no-longer-academic forgets that she is not, anymore, a scholar, teacher, researcher, and so forth.

On the other hand, I pushed back against “branding” because I was also tired of being constrained. For so many years, I had been this very specific thing and now I wanted to take this new ephemerality out for a spin. Sometimes this flexibility involved uncovering things I’d always been, such as “writer.” I’d relinquished the right to call myself a writer after my MA when I chose the PhD path rather than, as did many of my peers, the MFA. They were writers, and I was this other thing called an “academic.” But as soon as I stripped off the title of academic, “writer” was underneath, like a worn undershirt. Other things I’ve come to realize as essential parts of me include “mentor” and “critical thinker” but also “story-lover” and “rock climber” and “political news junky”—none of which cohere nicely into logo form.

Apart from uncovering these bedrock components of myself, I also felt an expansiveness in self-definition, at times exhilarating and at others, I must admit, discombobulating and horrible. And yet even in the darkest times of uncertainty and seeming dissolution, I could not seize on a new thing: This is me. This is who I am. This is my brand! Would this experience have been different if I had been quickly hired into a job with a viable career path? Possibly. But I wasn’t and however I tried I found that, post-PhD, I encompassed far more than an elevator speech—for good and for ill.

I don’t write this post as a tirade against “branding” or to discourage anyone from taking the ubiquitous branding advice because it probably is good advice, or at least practical. I write merely to note that, at least so far, this approach has not worked for me. And so I embrace Walt Whitman’s declaration, “Do I contradict myself? Very well then I contradict myself.” Despite the rigidity of academia, many of us loved it because of the endless possibility. Imagination alone limits one’s potential for reading and thinking and writing and teaching. I submit that the same holds true outside academia’s hallowed halls. Those who triumph with this approach are those wildly successful, entrepreneurial types who switch careers every three years and go base jumping. Meanwhile, the world also holds the rest of us, who may wish for greater specificity but will not relinquish our multivocality.

I thus prefer the approach of storytelling rather than “branding.” (I am a literature person, after all). Chris Humphrey has two excellent posts on this subject, one on overcoming the post-academic “failure” narrative and the other on telling a great story about your transition out of academia. Stories allow for so much more dynamism than a brand. Stories can develop and grow. Stories also honor the complexity that makes up a life’s journey, pulling together the splatters of experience, synthesizing the shared and highlighting the unique. And stories emphasize that I, that you, are so much more than a “brand.” In the end, practical or not, I’d rather be represented by a narrative than a catchphrase.


(*Here are a few examples of the type of "branding advice" that is referenced in this post.)

Sunday, June 1, 2014

The Thousand Cuts - A Guest Post

The following is a guest post from J.D.J. Plocher from If you would like to submit your own story about leaving, finding work out of academia, or any other topic, please contact us!

The first cut in the eight-year death of my academic career came when I applied only to doctoral programs “in places I’d like to live.” Looking back, the disconnect between my priorities and my goals is obvious. I was one year into an interim appointment as coordinator of operations for a new music center housed in the same college of music where I’d completed my master’s. My wife was just finishing hers. We were ready for something new…so why not more school? The answer has come in another 999 slender wounds.

That coordinator position was an interim appointment. The previous coordinator had left with little warning the previous summer, and I was tapped to replace him. I’d finished my masters in composition and music history. I was keen on new music. I was organized. My wife’s remaining year of school helped the timing make sense. It was also a hell of a pay increase from the college bookstore where I’d been working for slightly north of minimum wage.

Still…I did not want to stay in northwest Ohio. By 2005, my description of the area was well-rehearsed: “It’s flat in every possible way: topographically, culturally…you name it. The highest point in the county is a hill made from leftover fill from an overpass project. There are seven pizza places, two mediocre Chinese restaurants, the worst Mexican restaurant I have ever eaten at, and, inexplicably, a really good Japanese restaurant. Almost all the undergrads can go home to do laundry on the weekends. It feels like we’re farming music teachers for every primary and secondary school in the state.” I really wanted to move away. I liked my new job well enough, but there wasn’t anywhere to advance in it. The center consisted of a director, a coordinator, and a graduate assistant. The director’s chair was a 50% faculty assignment, and I wasn’t faculty.

I was not sure I wanted to be faculty (and couldn’t have been at the time). I did, though, want to learn more about new music. I’d started wondering why people kept composing the stuff (even though I was a composer myself). One of my main responsibilities as coordinator of operations was to administer and do the initial screening for an international call for scores. I listened to hundreds of pieces. Most of them weren’t particularly good. Some were especially bad. Some were really cool, but we’d never sell the performance faculty on them. We picked our battles in pitching works the performers. I learned a lot about the sausage-making that goes into any new music festival. Even when the festival went well, it was still full of pieces that left me scratching my head. It wasn’t because the pieces were bad, per se. (We kept the bad ones off the program.) It was because this music was mostly for people who were already sold on new music. The audience was full of composers.

Going into a musicology program while questioning the function of music was a second cut. It’s one that wouldn’t have been fatal in the right program, or with the right advising, or with the right courses on offer. That’s the thing, though: None of these cuts were fatal in themselves. Like my geographic limitations on programs, this was a case of me not doing myself any favors.

I waded through the application process for a handful of school and accepted an invitation to the program at the University of Minnesota. I had liked the Twin Cities while doing my undergrad; it was exciting to move back. My pregnant partner and I settled into a nice apartment we quickly discovered was in the ghetto. (It turns out that hunting apartments from 600 miles away leaves a wide margin for error.) We ignored the murders and began to accumulate furniture. Eventually, classes started. I liked my seminars.

My son was born in February of my first year. The timing was as close to ideal as it could be for a grad student. I was on fellowship and didn’t have any teaching load. I had the easiest semester I’d had since my undergrad years. I remember walking from the hospital to campus the afternoon after my son was born. I wanted to tell people, but I also wanted to be asked.

Having a kid? That started a whole series of cuts. Every time I was up in the middle of the night convincing him to go back to sleep. Every time I stayed home to take care of him instead of going to a campus event. Those moments accumulated, but the cuts came not just from fatigue and lost time. They came from perspective. The more often I thought of graduate school as a job rather than a calling, the less inclined I was to define myself by it. The less I defined myself by it, the harder it was to see all the hoop-jumping as necessary.

Some selected cuts accumulated during coursework:

The late Michael Steinberg—an incredibly erudite and charming man with an encyclopedic knowledge of the western canon—told me I had “debased musical tastes.” I had made the mistake of comparing a neo-classical Stravinsky piece to a Disney musical. His subsequent comment was clearly the kind that make their way out of one’s mouth before fully registering in the brain. His later, slightly-mortified apology was entirely sincere. Like my research interests, this wasn’t something that would have been a problem in the right program or if I had the right degree of firebrandish commitment to my cause. As it was, the comment proved another warning sign of an imperfect fit.

A prospective faculty member was giving her job talk. She had impressed most of the graduate students in our informal lunch meeting, discussing the breadth of her research interests and methodologies. She was friendly, too. I was close to liking her. Her job talk was among the most boring presentations I have ever seen. I spotted several attending senior faculty members dozing off. I came pretty close to falling asleep myself. Some of that can be blamed in scheduling the presentation for a Friday afternoon, but…if there was such a chasm between her teaching persona and her research, what was going to happen to me?

I’d hear rumors about the department’s ghosts. You know, the students who were ABD, or technically still enrolled, only nobody ever saw them. I knew there were people like this out there (the gentleman hired to replace me at the new music center was such a fellow), but I hadn’t really encountered any. While not literally specters, they embodied the specter of failure. I had come into grad school with the notion that academic success was more or less guaranteed for smart, hard-working people. Meeting some who were smart, hard-working, or both—and still flailing—was a surprise.

The real shock came at the end of my third year, when I got an e-mail notifying me that I wouldn’t have funding for the following year. Budgets were tight. I had finished my coursework. The faculty making the decision wanted to protect their graduate seminars by allocating the department’s limited resources to those students still taking classes. This happened just a few weeks after we’d discovered my spouse was pregnant with our second child. I got angry. I threw my heavy desk chair across the room. I yelled. I picked up and put down my phone half a dozen times without any idea who I should call to yell at. There had been no hint of this in the air. My first year had been on graduate college fellowship; it was only my second year on the department’s dime. Cutting me off seemed insanely capricious.

It was my last best chance to hop off the academic track before finishing. I had not quite settled on my dissertation topic. I liked teaching and had just finished assisting the four semesters of the undergraduate history sequence for majors. Except for the dissertation, I was “done.” I had gotten the direct experience I expected out of my doctoral program in terms of direct education.

Instead of using the opportunity to escape, I twisted it around to cling all the harder to my nascent PhD. I swore I’d finish to spite the people who’d cut me off. Somehow I convinced myself that the best revenge for the wrong I’d been done was to pretend it had never happened. If I left, I’d let “them” win. It didn’t matter that I had no clear concept of which “them” I was spiting, or how finishing my degree would accomplish that.

Losing my funding was my first direct acquaintance with how bad the money situation is in higher education. I had loosely tracked the growing number of stories about adjunctification, but when I lost my assistantship, I began to pay them much more attention. My naive faith that I’d be one of the success stories had been an armor. Losing my funding cracked that armor and made me far more receptive to bad news. If any single thing laid me open to the cuts that followed, it was that.

Some few of the thousand cuts go at the feet of my advisor. Ideally, the participants in an advising relationship (as in any relationship) complement one another. When you work with somebody who can shore up your weak spots and whose weak spots you can shore up, the results can be very good. They can be good, too, when you can amplify each other’s strengths. In my case, I ended up with an advisor who amplified my weaknesses. I was inclined to be independent; he was extraordinarily laissez-faire. I did not ask many questions; he seldom volunteered information. While I was writing, we’d meet once or twice a semester. When I had specific questions, my advisor gave great feedback. Otherwise, our meetings quickly devolved into departmental gossip.

There was a lot of gossip. I had the bad fortune to be working with my advisor as the department’s (and college’s) political landscape tilted away from him. He wasn’t at the meeting in which the department cut my funding, and he wasn’t able to do much to mitigate the damage. (He offered to help land me a 25% assistantship that would have ended up costing me money because it required full-time enrollment.) He did eventually help me land a few adjunct jobs and even got me back into the department to teach world music for a semester (sort of…it was complicated). None of our problems stemmed from from ill-will. We were just a bad fit—his benign neglect let us both drift more than we should have, especially when I was off-campus so much taking care of my kids. There was too much out of sight, out of mind…from both of us.

More cuts accumulated slowly but constantly as I worked on my dissertation. I enjoyed my research—even the irony that I made repeated trips to New York City and saw only the inside of libraries and archives. Occasionally, I enjoyed the writing. Mostly, I struggled to squeeze work in on evenings and weekends, annoyed at how much it took me away from my family. Every evening I handed the kids to my wife minutes after she got home was another wound.

Adjunct jobs were no salve. My first one was 100 miles away. Door-to-door, exactly 100 miles. It was also an 8:15 class, which meant I had to be out the door by 5:50 a.m. the two mornings the class ran. My “office hours” were half hours immediately after class in the horn professor’s office…and I was grateful that the department had an office to loan me. (They even let me have keys!) The few faculty members I met were incredibly nice. One volunteered to come observe my teaching so she could write me recommendations. It was, as adjunct jobs go, a nice environment. The problem was that the pay was barely enough to cover gas and childcare.

Another was in Shakopee—a mere 35 miles away from North Minneapolis. That one was at a for-profit school in a strip mall. They used Microsoft Outlook for all of their administrative functions and talked earnestly about enrollment targets. I was handed a syllabus that was, quite literally, from the corporate office. My students were mostly studying to be veterinary technicians (though I also had some aspiring accountants and a young man studying game design). World music was not their thing. College readiness, by and large, was not their thing, either. A few of the students were the kind who would have thrived in any environment. Most were not. It was a challenge to get them to read the textbook and pass basic quizzes (even with terms lists that told them exactly what might appear on said quizzes). The imperative to have them do college-level work without college-level skills necessitated a constant and awkward balancing act.

My adjunct jobs were not the worst ones I’ve ever had. The hours were bad and the pay was bad, but it was nothing on the couple of weeks I temped at a canning plant. If I were ranking jobs I’ve had, adjuncting would fall somewhere near working in a grocery store deli. That was a union shop, though, and if I’d stayed there even a week or two longer, I would have qualified for full benefits. That was never an option as an adjunct.

Adjunct jobs were supposed to be steps toward full-time positions. Job listings all called for a record of college teaching experience. Graduate assistantships only partially qualified. The real stepping stones were adjunct positions…mostly because those were the only ones available. They made for pretty dubious stepping stones, though, an extremely precarious path to cross the river between graduate school and the tenure track.

As I trudged through my dissertation, I had to sell myself on the idea of being done with my dissertation. I persisted with the idea of spiting my intermittently-supportive institution. In part I was wrestling with the years I’d already sunk into my PhD, and in part I had sold myself on the idea of being done. Being done would make everything better.

Being done did not make everything better.

I graduated in December 2012. Because of some quirks of academic scheduling and a particularly odd adjunct position I’d taken, I wasn’t teaching in the spring. I took care of my daughter and sat on my hands and waited for something, anything, to come back from the applications I’d spent October and November sending all over the country. I was miserable. I had begun to understand some of the consequences of my mutually laissez-faire relationship with my advisor. My CV was far too thin to insulate me from the chilly job market. I told myself that I’d chase the one-year positions that begin to be announced in the spring. I told myself that I’d get an interview invitation any day now…

…I told myself that I was worthless, that I’d thrown away seven years of my life chasing a degree that was going to get me something between jack and squat. After a decade in graduate school, I was somehow even less employable than I would have been straight out of undergrad. I’d made my wife work full time through our kids’ preschool years, made her live 1200 miles from her family. I was convinced I was failing my family. Late one night it got so bad that I cried for an hour, great wracking sobs that I couldn’t stop. I don’t know what would have happened if I’d been alone. My partner helped me get through that night, and the days that came after.

In March 2013, I went to the Society for American Music conference, hoping it might renew my enthusiasm (and because I had a paper to present). I heard more interesting papers than I’d heard at any previous conference. The members were supportive. They understood my research and some were excited about the way it fit in with their own work. It was the best conference experience I’d ever had. A week later, I was more convinced than ever that leaving academia was the right next step for me. My peers at the conference were all gunning for the same jobs I was. None of us were optimistic about our immediate futures. The early career professionals committee meeting was filled with too-familiar laments, even though my fellow scholars were excited by and committed to their work.

It also became clear in the wake of SAM that my odds of landing any lately announced long term positions—tenure-track or postdoc—were slim to none. The jobs wiki filled up first with campus interviews than with “position filled.” Postings for the secondary market were just starting to roll out. The string of one- or two-year visiting positions gnawed at me. I could not haul my family around the country for short-term jobs with marginal pay. There was no way I was leaving my wife to take care of the kids while I worked somewhere else. The secondary market wasn’t practical. I could sit out a year and use my connections to pick up more adjunct positions in the Twin Cities…

…or I could get out. Just plain out. The market and I were not a “good fit,” and there was no point in forcing it. The decision was as much realization as conscious choice. I didn’t want it badly enough. I had colleagues and acquaintances who thought about musicology every day. Since I’d defended my dissertation, I hadn’t really done that. The moderately adversarial position that had inspired me to start my doctorate in the first place had played itself out. I hadn’t changed my mind, but I’d answered most of my questions. Pushing further into theoretical constructs of music sociology or developing further music historical topics just didn’t seem that interesting any more.

That first cut—the one about only applying to schools in places I’d be interested in living? This was about the time I noticed that all my rationalizations about place were only relevant to the prospect of a stable job. Sure, I’d move somewhere for a job that would last. There was no way I’d move for just a year or two of visiting. Being an itinerant academic laborer seems much more palatable at a childless 25 than in a family of four at 33.

The numerous cuts I accumulated over the course of my graduate work and adjunct teaching did not change my mind about whether I’d be good at the job. They didn’t even change my mind too much about the things that had driven me to graduate school in the first place. I still believe that I am a good teacher and a competent researcher (even if I’ve long since given up fantasies of driving U.S. critical theory). My dream hadn’t changed. My understanding of reality did. I was a competent graduate of a midwestern research university. There was not much to distinguish me from the other 200 or so competent PhDs applying for just about every tenure track job and post-doc. Working years for less than minimum wage without promise of continued employment semester to semester just seemed…well, stupid. That is what staying inside meant. I wasn’t a wunderkind with a fat publication record and institutional legacy to help me out. I’d be adjuncting until I won the metaphorical lottery, died, or got out.

I decided to stop paying Interfolio for lottery tickets.

I knew a year ago that my decision was the right one, but that did not make it easy. I’d already been wrestling with depression. I never quite hit the lows I did in the few months after my defense, but I spent a lot of time as an emotional cork, bobbing up and down. I threw myself into Minnesota’s spring, unwilling to commit to anything until my son was done with his school year and we could make a plan. I spent a lot of time at the gym. I pecked fitfully at the novel I’d been waiting years to write. I slacked off. I took care of my kids, cooked, tried to keep the apartment clean, read books, played computer games.

About the time I was beginning to feel that I’d slacked off enough, it was time to decide where to live. My wife and I had already decided to move out of North Minneapolis. Our son needed to be in a school where being an Academic All-Star required more than being at grade level in reading and math. We needed a place to live that had interior doors. (Two kids had long since driven us out of love with our apartment’s open floor plan.) My son received a placement in a school in South Minneapolis, a good one that was also part of the district’s citywide autism program. There was a catch, though: rental properties in South Minneapolis were tiny, expensive, or both. Even a cursory look at the numbers made it clear that buying a house was a much better option.

My wife, who’d endured over a decade and a half in the midwest, balked. Her family was mostly in Texas, 1200 miles away. Buying a house in Minneapolis meant committing to that distance for several more years. Those were roots she was reluctant to put down. I wasn’t in graduate school any more, though, so we didn’t have to stay. I loved the Twin Cities, and would have happily remained there, but we’d been following my academic obligations around for as long as we’d been married. It was my wife’s turn to choose.

We made plans to move in the latter part of summer. That, conveniently, gave me an excuse to put off thinking about things like “I need a job.” I still had no idea what I was going to do beyond vague plans of “something with writing.” That could be done just as easily in Texas as in Minnesota. I should have started trying to build a network and apply for things, but I was much more interested in playing ultimate and taking my kids to the park and otherwise enjoying a last summer without scorching heat.

The move was about what you’d expect for 1200 miles to Texas in August: hot, tedious, exhausting. We’d moved with the naive belief that job offers for my wife would come quickly (mostly because she’d had a few before we moved). Instead, we had to make do with savings and a mix of my substitute teaching and my wife’s face-painting. The small and large expenses associated with moving ate into our savings quickly. One of the cars needed work before it could pass a vehicle inspection. Car registration was expensive. Our apartment complex botched air conditioner repairs in a way that jacked up our electric bill.

I spent the days I wasn’t teaching looking for jobs. Technical writing. Journalism. Design. Copy writing. Proofreading. Post-relocation, my network was nonexistent. I applied anywhere that looked vaguely plausible. On the rare occasions I got interviews, my PhD was the first (and sometimes last) topic of discussion. I wanted to start a new career, not just a new job. Starting in a position with no potential for advancement seemed stupid. I had skills, damn it, and I intended to use them. The problem was convincing potential employers that my skills were more important than my (lack of) concrete qualifications. It was disheartening, but I didn’t know what to do beyond “apply apply apply.”

About the time we began to think seriously about how much we could get away with putting on credit cards (and for how long), my wife found a full-time job. An unexpected bit of inheritance replenished our savings. We suddenly had breathing room. With my wife working full time and limited childcare options, I went back to being a stay-at-home dad most days. I worked on my novel and my blog. Eventually, we hammered out an arrangement with my in-laws to watch the kids two days a week so I could put in more days subbing.

I was also able to go to what was probably my last academic conference. About two weeks after I had decided to take myself off the market (or not go on the secondary market), I received an invitation to speak at AMS—the American Musicological Society. It was my first invitation to present at AMS. Any AMS, even the twice-yearly regional chapter meetings to which I religiously sent paper proposals. My research and the society’s interests had apparently never been compatible. Looking over the conference programs, I could almost see why. Research into post-1945 American art music was scant. Research that also took odd methodological tacks, that engaged different elements of music-making was even rarer. I accepted the invitation and seldom thought about it until I had to write book tickets and write the paper.

AMS in November 2013 suddenly featured lots of research that I could get behind. I spent most of Saturday hearing papers on post-war American music. The presenters were not just engaging scores or composers. There was a whole panel about music and branding. The papers were excellent. Here were scholars doing the kind of work that had pulled me out of composition into musicology in the first place: asking why, and who, and how, and why we should care.

Sitting in a Saturday morning panel, even more than in the Friday afternoon session featuring my presentation, I felt like I had made it. Here was a collection of smart people, mostly young, chasing the same answers I spent years chasing. I could have collected e-mail addresses to wrangle together a group for an edited volume or two, or panel discussions for future conferences, or just to compare notes on all the Cool Stuff…

…and I didn’t. Before the conference, I had talked about not having anything to prove, but I hadn’t realized what that would look like. I enjoyed being able to approach the presenters with sincere compliments, to share short conversations about our work, and to move on. I wasn’t compelled to network or position my research vis-a-vis theirs. I could appreciate the coolness of the cool stuff and get on with my day.

If I had still been invested in the game, I don’t know as I would have enjoyed the conference much beyond those papers. Most of my conversations with colleagues were about bureaucracy or the job hunt. Neither subject had much sunshine in it. Even the young academics who were collecting awards and doing awesome research did not seem especially sanguine about staying inside. The faculty who mentored me through my doctorate were making noises about or plans for retirement.

I laughed more that weekend than I had recently. I caught up with people I hadn’t seen for months or years. I had too much coffee and not enough sleep. I sat outside panels and worked on my novel. I used my Twitter account more in 72 hours than I had in the previous 72 days. Despite all that, it felt like a farewell tour. Not a victory lap, mind, but that one last walk around campus before everybody goes home for the summer.

The winter (or what passes for it in Texas) was personally dreary without touching the darkness I’d felt the previous February. I staggered from sub job to sub job, intercutting them with working on my novel and taking care of my kids. With my wife working, our household finances finally stabilized, though it took longer to settle into a routine that allowed me to work more than two days each week. My sister-in-law has a son a few weeks older than my daughter. Some changes in her situation allowed her to spend more time watching my kids. I began to sub more.

I was still collecting rejection e-mails, though. The worst was for a coordinator job at the University of Texas that was incredibly similar to the one I’d done back in Ohio. How could I be such damaged goods that I couldn’t get a job for which I was not only qualified, but experienced? Looking at job listings got a little more like staring into the abyss every week. Human resources people and departments at the kind of companies that list jobs on-line are as subservient to formulae as university search committees. Miss a keyword or have the wrong job title and you go straight to the circular file, no matter how qualified you are. The more rejections I got, the harder it was for me to look at a listing and think “I can do that” rather than “there is no way in hell I could even get an interview.”

The rejections were depressing. Thinking about the reasons for them led me in widening gyres of self-blame and self-recrimination. I complained (mostly to myself, sometimes to my incredibly patient wife) about the bad fit with my advisor, about the idiocy of corporate HR, about my utter lack of network in Texas. On the days I got rejections, I was not much fun to be around. Eventually, I came to terms with the fact that I did not have the right set of skills for the jobs I was looking for. That does not mean I couldn’t do them. I learned many thing as I went through school. I could do most of the jobs I was applying for, official qualifications or not. The skills I lacked were the soft skills of glad-handing and networking, of aggressive self-marketing…skills grad school had done very little to develop.

I don’t like those skills. It’s a temperament thing. I don’t hide what I know, but it’s challenging for me to talk myself up to strangers. I hit a crossroads where it became clear that I needed to commit to learning new skills: either the soft skills of self-promotion or a more concrete set of skills that I could turn into certificates and resume bullet points. It took most of a year, but I had finally decided that potentially getting more education—possibly even more school—was not anathema.

In late March, I started a long-term substitute assignment that kept me in the same school with the same classes for six weeks. One of the days that first week, I came home and told my partner that I could not imagine myself ever teaching middle school full time. A few weeks later, we had a conversation about how middle schoolers are some of the most interesting kids to teach. I’ve played around with lesson plans, adjusted pacing, graded speeches and explained narrative conflict. I’ve felt like a teacher, not a substitute for one. Nothing is certain yet, but as the school year winds to a close, I spend most days expecting I’ll be back in a middle school next year.

The thousandth cut? I think it’s this essay. A few months ago I made a conscious effort to blog more on post-academic issues. It has been simultaneously therapeutic and frustrating. Being candid about the problems I’ve run into since deciding to leave is refreshing. Posting about #postac, though, often seems like empty kvetching. Sometimes it is. More often, it’s situational observation—I write more about what I have felt than what I’m feeling, describing moments rather than my state of being. It wears me down. I don’t have the same righteous fury that drives, say, Rebecca Schuman. I don’t have any desire to turn myself into a consultant for other academic leavers. I enjoy the comments about solidarity in suffering, and appreciate some of the lessons I have picked up from other blogs about how to think about my “condition.” I’m just not keen on trying to generalize my experience.

Writing about being a postac has made me feel less like one. It’s been a year since I decided not to test the secondary market. A rough year, yes, but I amplified that by moving across the country. Now, I feel like I live here, physically and metaphysically. My practical struggles haven’t changed all that much. I’ve been a substitute teacher for almost seven months. I am not certain what I’m doing this summer, never mind next year. I’m still trying to get health insurance for my kids. The difference—and this is key—is that I’m no longer approaching these problems with my past hanging over me. I’ve made a transition from “failed academic” to “guy with a PhD starting a new career.”

The postac is dead. Long live the postac.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Post-Ac Careers: Pinball, Not Path

This recent post here at HTLA has me thinking about the way we conceive of our post-ac careers. We hear lots about the career “path” - heck, I’ve used this language myself - but a path implies a linear progression, something mapped out, progressive, and even logical. But I think pinball might be a better metaphor, at least for some of us. We may bounce from job to job for sometime. We may shoot across the board to a totally different work or field than we’d originally intended, for a variety of reasons, some purposeful (“I want a different job”) and some incidental (“I’m moving, we’re downsizing, I need benefits, I’m having kids” - whatever).

I thought it might be illuminating to talk about the different career trajectories of people who have worked in my office in academic advising (anonymously and without identifying details). Many of the people hired here have backgrounds and advanced degrees in humanities, social sciences, etc, so I think their career trajectories will illustrate how much things can change -- may change -- for post-acs. I also want to normalize this fact of life: everything doesn’t proceed in a straight, beautiful line. I think this is much more common than we may realize, especially as we start out in the “real world.”

This is just a sampling of people I know about, not necessarily know personally. Again, identifying details removed, and this is purely anecdotal. We have a big office with somewhat high turnover, so I have a lot of examples here.


Advisor Amy

Field: anthropology

Advisor: 3 years

What came next? Went back to school to become a nurse.


Advisor Betty

Field: women’s studies

Advisor: 4 years

What came next? Full-time English position at a Community College.


Advisor Craig

Field: unknown

Advisor: 7 years

What came next? Moved to be closer to home, admin position at small liberal arts school.


Advisor Dan

Field: English

Advisor: 8 years and counting

What came next? Nothing, likes the job and moving up the ladder.


Advisor Eleanor

Field: Architecture

Advisor: 9 months

What came next? Moved due to partner relocation, now advising at another major University.


Advisor Fritz

Field: unknown

Advisor: many years

What came next? Went back to school for Counseling Psychology degree.


Advisor Gru

Field: Education

Advisor: 2 years

What came next? Did side work for a testing org that turned into a FT job.


Advisor Harrison

Field: English

Advisor: 20+ years

What came next? Still in advising working primarily with pre-med students.


Advisor Ingrid

Field: Theater

Advisor: 2 years

What came next? Adjuncted for awhile, then FT lectureship in Theater department.


Advisor Jan

Field: Communication

Advisor: 3 years

What came next? Left to be a full time mother.


Advisor Kevin

Field: American Studies

Advisor: 3 years

What came next? Moved because partner went to grad school in different state, became full-time father for awhile.


Advisor Letitia

Field: Psychology

Advisor: 5 years

What came next? Moved into a senior advising position in an academic department unrelated to field of study.


Advisor Magnus

Field: Engineering

Advisor: 7 years

What came next? Took a position at a rural CC to create a new pre-Engineering program.


Advisor Nina

Field: unknown

Advisor: 1 year

What came next? Took a position at a small lib arts school where had been adjuncting during grad school, works with first year orientation.


You can see here that for some, advising becomes the new career path, and for some it's a "just for now" job. Some job opportunities came along, some made choices based on life circumstance, some progressed into new positions along the same lines as advising. Some end up in positions closely tied to their field of study, some work in something unrelated. Some stay! And so it goes.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Left and Leaving - A Guest Post


The following is a guest post from one of our anonymous readers. If you would like to submit your own story about leaving and finding nonacademic work, please contact us!

I guess I’m a post-ac success story. I’m a PhD (English, 2011) who is gainfully employed in a full-time, salaried position. By that measure, I’m one of the lucky ones. I never had to apply for retail work, nor did I ever need to seriously consider it. I didn’t suffer through a prolonged period of unemployment. I have benefits, a home, and a little bit of money in the bank. I’ve been gainfully employed for a year and a half now. I’m thankful for that—I really, really am.

But I’ve also been pretty miserable at times since. All those quit-lit stories that begin with the overwhelmed, jaded, or depressed graduate student who finds solace and fulfilment beyond the ivory tower? That’s not me. I loved grad school. I made great friends there. We had great conversations about all kinds of things. I liked teaching. Marking was a drag sometimes, but I was getting paid (if not as much as I’d like) to talk about stuff I cared deeply about.[1] I loved research. Writing my dissertation was a struggle, of course. Some days it was absolutely brutal. But I really, really liked what I was working on and am proud of the result. I loved going to conferences and sharing my new ideas with fellow scholars who were interested in what I thought about Moby-Dick, and I was interested in hearing about their new work. I was in my element. Now that it’s behind me, I miss it terribly. Call it nostalgia or call it Stockholm Syndrome if you like, but I was sorry to go.

The decision to leave was very difficult for me. While I liked academic life, I was well aware of the realities of the job market. My wife and I were picky (by academic standards) about where wanted to live. We wanted to stay in Canada, and we actually wanted to be within a hundred miles or so of at least one of our families. That narrowed things down to a small number of schools. Staying on as a part-time faculty member wasn’t a viable long-term option, either. We wanted to start a family and own a home at some point, and it was important to me to have some stability in our lives before we did. So I started looking for non-academic work.[2]

I spent a lot of time that summer trying to figure out my next steps. I didn’t even know what other jobs were out there, much less what else I might want to do. I had a five-year-old’s mind when it came to career options: there was fireman, policeman, teacher, lawyer, doctor, carpenter, and so on. The career center at my university was well-meaning but ultimately not terribly helpful. Their assessment tool suggested I become, in order 1) History Professor; 2) Desktop Publisher; and 3) Writer. Great.

I ended up taking the approach of targeting an employer in town that I knew had hired PhDs in the past and, to make a long story short, it worked. They had an opening, I applied, and before I knew it, I had a job as a research analyst.

At first, I liked my job a lot. The first few months were great. My co-workers were smart, interesting people. I wasn’t all that interested in the material I was researching, but I liked that I was still doing research and writing (of a sort). This was one of those companies that prides itself on being a “fun” place to work; around Christmas time, there were plenty of activities like decorating the office, an afternoon of board games, and of course a ridiculous company party. I relished my regular paycheque, and re-discovered the joy of a weekend with nothing in particular to do. It wasn’t bad at all.

But the honeymoon didn’t last. The private sector moves fast, and the job that had been described to me when I was hired changed quickly. I wasn’t keen on traveling, and had been told when I was hired that my position would require little of it. But, before long we were expected to travel for a couple of days every few weeks. The company was growing, and management decided that they needed to standardize a bunch of internal processes. “Research” became paperwork, filling in blanks in forms and checking boxes. I felt more like an assembly line worker than a knowledge worker. During this time I truly learned the meaning of the word “micromanagement.”

I might have been able to endure that if I felt I was being paid enough. When I was hired, I accepted a salary a bit lower than I thought I was worth because I had been told that with my background and credentials I’d be able to move up the ladder very quickly. I understood that as someone without much non-academic work experience, they might want me to prove myself before investing in me further. I thus looked forward to my first performance review, knowing that I had more than met all the published requirements for a promotion. But, when we finally sat down for my appraisal, I was told that while I had more than exceeded their expectations for somebody who’d been with the company as long as I had (eleven months at that point) it was policy not to promote anyone before they had been on board for a year. Missed it by that much. Moreover, it was also policy that promotions only occur at the annual performance review. I’d have to wait another year before I saw any movement. I was given a pat on the head and the same raise they give everyone who doesn’t get promoted, less than a cost-of-living increase.

I only grew more frustrated after that. The level of micromanagement increased. The company took away some of our perks without giving us any notice. We were told to expect more traveling, in spite of being told earlier on that it was going to be a limited thing. By this point I had a baby at home, and I didn’t relish the thought of being away from him or my wife. I still liked my co-workers, but beyond that, I found it difficult to muster even a modicum of interest in my work. Every day I counted down the hours till quitting time; every week I counted down the days till the weekend; every weekend I counted down (with dread) the hours before Monday morning.

I started to despair that the problem was me. When I initially started looking for work, I had drank deeply from the #post-ac/#alt-ac cup and stories of lapsed or former academics who not only quickly proved their mettle in the private sector but found jobs that were deeply fulfilling. On paper, my job still looked pretty good. Again: good salary, good benefits, good co-workers. Why couldn’t I enjoy it?

But not all post-ac jobs are alike, nor are all post-ac employees. When I left, I thought I had a good idea of what I wanted out of a job: something that was time-boxed and would leave me my evenings and weekends free to pursue what I wanted. However, my day-to-day was so emotionally and psychologically exhausting that I had little energy to muster to continue, for instance, writing about those things I cared about. A personal blog that had been a pleasurable diversion for me in my last year on the adjunct circuit went to seed, and I found myself feeling bitter jealousy rather than happiness when my academic friends found success. I didn’t like it. I looked for other jobs, but found myself wrestling the same demons I fought when I first left academia: what do I really want to be when i “grow up”? What do I actually enjoy doing, anyway?

Maybe my standards were too high. Maybe it was too much to expect to feel comfortable at the place at which I was going to spend eight hours a day. I still don’t know. But I suppose I’ll find out. I’m pleased to report that I was able to find a new job, one that sounds like it will be a much better fit for me. It’s in a field that is something I care deeply about, and it will let me write actual paragraphs. My new employer told me that they strongly felt that my PhD is a great asset for the role they have planned for me. I’m excited to see where this goes.

At the same time, though, I can’t help but be ambivalent. A former professor of mine, who I’m now happy to count as a friend, asked if she could put my story in the department newsletter. The point is to celebrate the accomplishments of the program’s graduates, whether they found it in academia or without. I think that’s great, but I’m uncomfortable being held up as an example in case my story gets spun into one of those “Look at all the things you can do with PhD in English” marketing spiels that, at some point, I started to find unconscionable. I haven’t replied to her request yet. I’m still thinking about it.

But I do hope my story has some value to those who are embarking on a similar journey. If I could offer any advice, the first thing I’d say is that it’s not you. It’s probably not your fault you can’t find a job in academia. It probably won’t be your fault if you can’t find one without, at least not immediately. It’s really, really hard. The second point I want to emphasize is this: there are a lot of good, well-meaning #post-ac and #alt-ac advocates out there. There are also a good many who mistakenly think that because they found a job where they daily use the skills they built during their advanced degrees that everyone can and will. I’ve spoken to a few who are convinced that regardless of what kind of a job you get, you can “make it your own” and bring those skills to bear. This person obviously didn’t work where I did. If you end up in a situation where you realize the value of your degree on a regular basis, bully for you. But not all of us will be so lucky, and I think many who are that lucky don’t realize just how many factors had to come together to make it happen. And finally, there’s a lot to be said for mindset. I think a good part of my problem was that I still was—still am—an academic in my own mind. I don’t know what I can do to break that mindset yet. If you figure it out, let me know.

[1] I am in no way suggesting that the terrible conditions endured by part-time faculty are in any way “worth it” because they sometimes to get to teach topics they care about. If it were, I would have never left.

[2] Since leaving academia, there has not been a single permanent, full-time job posted in this country in my field. I guess it was the right choice.