Sunday, February 9, 2014

What is the "Right" Postacademic Job?

Crossposted from JC's blog.

As you may have just read (and if not, go read it now!), my fellow post-academic and co-editor Kathleen has landed herself a new fulltime job working for an online university! She will be working with and mentoring university students, teaching a few online classes, and will be staying in the geographic location that she is currently living in without having to relocate. Oh, and it will also pay her a generous full-time salary with benefits. Yayyyyy Kathleen!!

(Because I feel like I should say this: I know what school she will be working for, and it's not one of the "diploma mill" online schools that are often criticized. Though for reasons that I will outline below, I wouldn't care if it was ... because I firmly believe that any nonacademic job is a valid choice for people who leave academia.)

So, the other night when Kathleen emailed Lauren and me to tell us about her new job, she was a little worried that she would be considered a "postacademic impostor" once she announced her new job: that she would be criticized for not taking the "right" kind of postacademic job (because online universities have come under fire lately from folks in academia and postacademia), or that taking a job that involved teaching and mentoring was not far enough outside of traditional academia to truly qualify as a postacademic job.

As I told Kathleen last week, I don't agree with that assessment at all. And thinking about that conversation has actually motivated me to write my first blog post in a long, long time.

I've been out of academia for nearly three years now, and the postacademic blogosphere and world have changed considerably during that time. Most of that shift has been wonderful - we are getting national press coverage and having public conversations about leaving academia, and the decision to leave is losing a lot of its stigma and the people who do it are being brought out of the shadows.

But along with the growing visibility of the postacademic blogosphere, I've also noticed a not-so-great shift in the types of conversations we're having.

The postacademic blogosphere used to be primarily about how individual bloggers were leaving academia without a net or a guide, and about their success (or lack thereof) at finding some job - any job - that would help them fully break free from academia's totalitarian culture and strict guidelines for what was acceptable. We had popular postacademic bloggers who worked as temps, as secretaries, as office managers, and even those who were unemployed for a while as they tried to find a new job. But we supported each other, and we reassured each other, and we talked about how even our not-so-glamorous jobs were terrific in comparison to adjuncting! And that our stable jobs (no matter what they were!) were better than begging for graduate funding every year while we took multiple futile stabs at the academic job market. At that time, leaving was the end goal for postacademics. It didn't matter what you did next, as long as you broke free of academia.

In contrast, today's postac blogsophere has been more focused on scathing critiques of higher education and academia, and on profiles of successful people who have left academia and are well-established in new careers. I think that these types of pieces are certainly useful for new postacademics to read (scathing critiques abound in my archives, of course!), but this new focus has left a noticeable hole in the blogosphere. The highly personal, individual stories about the struggles and ups and downs of individual people as they are initially leaving academia and trying to find some stable footing elsewhere are all but missing in today's postacademic world. (Though such stories abound in our e-book, which can be bought here or here!)

That's understandable, to a point - as postacademia becomes more public, the types of conversations that we have will change. But to tie this back to my conversation with Kathleen--in which she worried that her new job meant that she was "doing postacademia wrong"--I worry that the absence of stories about the struggles and hard decisions that many postacs go through as they leave may inadvertently make future academic leavers feel anxious or apprehensive. If new postacs don't know what kind of career they want after they leave, is that okay? Because most of what they will read in today's blogosphere is about people leaving and landing awesome, elite, PhD-level jobs.

Similarly, if they don't land a perfect, academically-approved postac job right away, are they doing postacademia right? If they wind up temping for a little while as they figure out what comes next, should they feel like failures? If they get a good job with a generous salary and benefits in an industry that other postacademics are criticizing publicly, should they stay quiet because it's not a "good" job??

I worry that if postacademia continues to highlight only the biggest postac successes, they will be inadvertently ignoring people whose paths out of academia aren't quite as blessed. And in turn, I worry that we may be doing a disservice to the people who will be looking to the postac blogosphere for advice in the future, especially if they don't know exactly what they want to do next. (You know...people like Kathleen and me, 2-3 years ago.)

So in today's shifting postacademic blogsophere, I want to be clear about something that I believe with every fiber of my being (and that I do believe most postacademics believe, for the record): short of contract killing or drug trafficking, there are no "good" or "bad" postacademic jobs. There is no "right" or "wrong" way to do postacademia. 

In order to do postacademia "right" (according to me), you need to find a job that fulfills two goals: (1) one that pays you enough money so that you can live a stable life, and (2) one in which your employer treats you better than how folks are treated in the worst aspects of academia.

Those are the goals you should be focused on. You shouldn't be wasting your time thinking about whether you're getting the "right" job (according to your former academic colleagues or according to what you read in an interview with a successful postac that one time). Just find a job that breaks you from traditional academia and that lets you live a stable adult life.

Goal #1 will vary based on your individual circumstances. Maybe you have a big savings account already or a wealthy partner, so you can afford to work sporadic, one-off jobs after you leave. Or maybe you have a well-paying academic job that you don't despise, so you decide to hang out in grad school or in your faculty job until you land the perfect nonacademic career you're dreaming of.

Great!! Good postacademic-ing! Keep on looking for that job you really want!

But some people can't hold out for that dream job. Maybe they can only find academic work as an adjunct or on a one-year VAP post across the country, and they need more money and stability than that. Maybe they have kids, or a mortgage, or student loans...whatever it is, their situation is not sustainable in academia. They need to leave now, and can't afford to keep adjuncting (or freelancing part-time or interning for no pay) until their perfect job appears.

So for those people - and I want to be very, very clear about this - taking any job that offers financial stability is a wonderful postacademic move.

Even if you are working for the most soul-sucking, nasty, for-profit corporation in the world, you are doing postacademia right. Because you have broken from academia and you are making ends meet, and you have therefore given yourself the freedom to pay your bills and think about what comes next for you, career- and life-wise. Maybe you will land a "better" career at the perfect nonprofit think tank you've always dreamed of next. If so, great! But the point is - if you don't, that's great too! Because you are a successful postacademic at the very moment that you break free from academia.

You have removed desperation from the equation. You're no longer frantically wondering if the academic job market is going to come through for you, or what you're going to do if it doesn't. You're no longer eyeing the impending cancellation date for your graduate or VAP health insurance and wondering how the hell you are going to pay for a new plan when you may have no salary if another institution doesn't pick you up. And you're no longer researching how long it will take you to get food stamps for your kids if you find out in June that your adjunct contract won't be renewed for the following year. You are outside of the traditional academic structure and now you can look forward and figure out what comes next.

And this brings me around to goal #2 - how do you know whether your new postac job is "good enough" for postacademia?

In my opinion...if your new job treats you well (however you define that) and your job title is not "Professor," you are a postacademic success story. No matter where you work.

Any job that gives you whatever benefits you, personally, need (on top of a solid salary) is better than the worst aspects of academia, in which you're expected to work for any amount of pay and any crappy benefits that an academic institution is willing to charitably bestow upon you.

Any job that does not demand that you have to suck it up and move to a geographic location in which you don't want to live (and that you are told to be grateful for, because there are 1000 people who would love to be in your shoes!!) is better than the worst aspects of academia.

Any job for which being fired or laid off would qualify you for unemployment benefits is better than the worst aspects of academia.

Any industry that hires year-round, rather than during the same four-month schedule every year (and too bad for you if you need a job in May!), is better than the worst aspects of academia. Bonus points if your interview for said job took place in an office, rather than on a hotel bed.

Any job where you're treated like an employee rather than an indentured servant who should be grateful for the opportunity is better than the worst aspects of academia. I don't care what industry you're working in or what your job title is ... if academia is forcing you to live in poverty or to be utterly miserable, any other job is an upgrade from that.

So my job at a consulting firm (with fulltime salary and benefits in the town that I want to live in, on a contract that has no foreseeable end) qualifies as a postacademic job, and a success. Kathleen's new job as a mentor/instructor at an online university (with fulltime salary and benefits in the town that she wants to live in with a contact that has no foreseeable end) qualifies as a successful postacademic job. My friend who works at a research center at our old university (with the same benefits as above) is a successful postacademic. The secretarial job that the old blogger Recent Ph.D. got after she left academia (fulltime salary, benefits, city she liked, indefinite contract) made her a successful postacademic.

Every one of those people is a successful postacademic because they have found something better than they could get in academia. The point is not what your job title is or what your qualifications are, but that you are refusing to play by academia's batshit rules anymore. You are declaring yourself as a qualified and educated adult who deserves some stability and a living wage. And once you have that, you are a successful postacademic.

So if you find that stability and a living wage in a teaching/mentoring position without the title of "professor," then that's great! Good postacademic-ing! If you find that in a secretarial job, then that's great! If you find it in a freelance or entrepreneurial career, then that's great! High-five!

Because no one - NO ONE - who leaves academia should feel bad about the type of job that they get. (Again, unless they are becoming a contract killer. If you are doing that, you should feel bad.)

The point of postacademia isn't getting a certain type of socially-approved job. It's about breaking free of academia's bullshit rules and of getting yourself a sustainable adult life.

So no matter what kind of postacademic job you get, be proud of yourself. I sure am.

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