Monday, March 3, 2014

The Post-Academic Privilege Divide: Troubling Trends in a Growing Movement

How to Leave Academia founders JC, Kathleen “Currer Bell,” and Lauren collaborated to write this piece after a conversation concerning recent trends and themes we believe are developing in the “post-academic” movement, which we find troubling. In this post, we describe some of the assumptions that we see undergirding recent themes in the “postac community” -- the network of bloggers, writers, and publications that focus on leaving the ivory tower and finding outside employment -- and connect them to a “privilege divide” that we believe exists in today’s visible postacademic movement.

In short: we believe that the most visible and vocal part of today’s post-academic movement is serving primarily (or only) the most privileged post-academics - those who can pay for professional services or who are seeking careers in a specific range of entrepreneurial/writing fields after leaving academia. We would like to call attention to this troubling trend, as we believe that it leaves less privileged post-academics in the lurch when they go looking for advice. We understand that many of our fellow post-acs are currently embarking on entrepreneurial careers related to offering advice to or writing about folks who are leaving academia, and we would like to be clear that we support those ambitions and projects wholeheartedly. However, we strongly believe that the postacademic world at large needs to offer free, open-source advice for all post-academics in all situations, so we would like to stake a claim for our website as a resource for people who may desperately need income/assistance after leaving, or for those who may not want to seek a career related to writing or research or other pseudo-academic fields.

While all post-academics - privileged and nonprivileged - deserve support and advice as they transition out of academia, we believe that less privileged academic leavers need particular, unique types of support that are not being offered by many postac voices today - but that we at HTLA are specifically and deliberately offering with our site. We end this “manifesto” by noting our vision for the post-academic movement and how it (and we) can best serve all post-academics - not just those who can pay or those who will transition into careers that are very close to academia (policy research, curriculum writing, university administration, etc.).


Nearly two years ago, JC wrote several posts about privilege in graduate school. She argued that differences in pre-existing privilege between graduate students (who later become adjuncts and faculty) leads to major inequalities in financial and emotional well-being among academics. Her basic thesis was that grad school exacerbates existing class inequalities: that grad school is set up to benefit people who already have financial resources and support, so that privileged grad students have an easier time doing the types of things that make progress and success in the academic world possible (living on meager fellowship money, attending expensive conferences, etc.). Those things that mainly privileged grad students can do, in turn, become the defining criteria by which academic success is identified, so that ultimately the students who are given the most support and have the best job market records after graduation are often those from more privileged backgrounds (since their resumes are full of fellowships, independent research projects, and conferences rather than teaching positions and scut work done for other academics in order to earn extra money to pay their bills).

Unfortunately, we believe that we are now seeing these privilege divides replicating themselves in the post-academic world, whereby post-academics who are more privileged (who can afford to take time off after quitting, or who can pay for new training programs or survive on freelance or part-time work until they land their “dream jobs”) are the targets of much postacademic advice being handed out publicly today. In turn, post-acs who have to take any job they can find out of financial necessity have been are telling the three of us (via emails and blog comments and posts of their own) that they feel somewhat ashamed or even marginalized by the larger postac movement for not having landed the “perfect” postacademic job, or for not working a job that is considered prestigious enough for their education level.

This worries us, since we firmly believe that no one should feel bad about the type of post-academic job they get (see recent posts that touch on this sentiment at all three of our blogs). But perhaps more importantly, we are deeply concerned that the post-academic movement and community may be on its way to marginalizing and even ignoring the financial/emotional crises that many post-academics face after leaving, and the social justice issues therein.

A lot of today’s post-ac advice talks about networking, consulting, freelancing, etc. - activities that a lot of visible post-academics are involved in themselves. And of course, it is easiest to give advice about things that you have firsthand knowledge about - we understand that! But engaging in these activities without another source of income (or a family or partner who can support you) requires a certain level of privilege in order to make it work. And unfortunately, there are many people who want or need to leave academia who do not have that level of privilege. Their first focus must be on paying rent and feeding their kids, and they cannot survive on freelancing work alone, nor can they take some time off to network or to hold out for the “perfect” nonacademic job.

We are beginning to worry that the most visible parts of the post-academic movement are focusing too strongly on the first (more privileged) group of post-academics, and are leaving the less privileged groups out to pasture without advice or support for their particular situations (how to deal with student loans, how to make ends meet, how to deal with emotional fallout in ways other than writing publicly).

When JC first left academia in early 2011, her biggest inspirations in the post-academic blogosphere were Recent PhD of the (apparently shuttered) blog After Academe and the writer of the blog Postacademic in NYC. Both of these early postac bloggers left academia after finishing their Ph.Ds and worked as a secretary and a white-collar temp worker, respectively, before moving onto different positions. JC - who left academia knowing that she needed a full-time job to pay the bills but being unsure of exactly what she wanted to do with her life (because she had never planned for anything but an academic career!) - found both of their stories incredibly inspiring. Their jobs weren’t ideal, but they were still happy, and were utterly convinced that leaving academia was the best choice for them. They gave JC the courage to quit.

In the current post-academic universe, we fear that stories like this are missing, to the detriment of those who are leaving. Of course, we would love nothing more than for every academic leaver (including ourselves!) to be able to move immediately into their dream postacademic job. But the reality for many post-academics looks much different, and we are sad to no longer see stories like RecentPhD’s or PAINYC’s out there, positioned prominently in the post-academic world.

The post-academic movement simply cannot talk about “what academic leavers should do” (during or after their time in grad school) without talking about the wide range of experiences people have in academia, the effects of which they carry with them when they leave. Not everyone networked or thought about postac careers while they were in grad school. Not everyone can afford to take time off after leaving (or even to adjunct or freelance) while they figure out what they want to do next and take a year or so to start earning a real income.

Many post-academics need to find a steady paycheck with benefits before they can think about next steps or long-term career goals. Many will have student loan collectors or credit card companies breathing down their necks after they leave, and will need to formulate a plan for dealing with those issues before they can think about what their ideal postacademic career would be and sacrifice to prepare for it. Yet other people may not even want to seek out a new career immediately after leaving, but may be content to just find an administrative, paper-pushing job that will allow them to spend time with their families and to enjoy their lives away from academia, without the stress of freelancing or entrepreneurship or other such endeavors.

All of those life situations and choices are perfectly valid, and all of those groups of people deserve to be helped by the postacademic movement. Unfortunately, the focus of the public post-academic movement in recent months has noticeably shifted toward the more privileged or ambitious groups, and is leaving the rest of the post-academics without much visible help.

In 2011 and 2012, there were no national news articles about the plight of the post-academic or the adjunct. There were few conversations about these issues on Twitter or Facebook. There were simply a few post-academic bloggers, writing entries in the evenings after their office jobs or during their frantic post-academic job searches. Bloggers sitting on the couch on the weekends, answering emails and responding to comments, offering whatever tiny pieces of advice we could think of to the desperate people who wanted to leave but couldn’t find any help or support outside of our little blogs.

Today, however, post-academia has exploded. We are getting national attention from journalists, Twitter conversations fly fast and furious, and there is a whole industry developing around helping academic leavers negotiate the transition out of academia and onto something new.

That “something new,” however, far too often involves a narrow range of career choices like freelancing, coaching, or working in alt-ac positions in universities. And the new post-academic industry too often reserves its advice for those who can pay, while ignoring the more ad-hoc, casual, unstructured requests for help. Twice in recent memory, editors of this blog have noticed tweets in which potential post-acs asked for general advice about leaving or career guidance from any of the post-acs who are active on Twitter….only to see those tweets go unanswered until one of us from HTLA answered, sometimes hours later.

Meanwhile, post-academic blogs seem to have fallen by the wayside, to a large extent. There are articles in national magazines and websites offering up services for hire to people who want to leave academia...but the old stories of “how I left academia and how you can, too!” are all but missing today. We find this pattern problematic. Post-academia, in our opinion, should be about helping all leavers get through that tough time.

We are not asking all post-academics to pay attention to all groups of academic leavers, or for everyone to offer advice ranging from how to become a freelancer down to how to become a secretary.

However, we would like to directly call out this shift in the public movement and identify it as problematic, and we would like to clearly and directly stake a claim for our space in the post-academic universe. And we are asking the most public and active post-academics to remember that there are other types of (less privileged or less confident) academic leavers out there, and that there are resources out here for them as well.

What How To Leave Academia (HTLA) Offers to the Post-Ac Movement

At How to Leave Academia, we have traced the history of the post-ac movement in some detail, and note that while the movement actually started several decades ago, the past few years have seen exponentially more voices entering the scene (with, surely, more to come). More and more grad students, adjuncts, and full-time faculty are quitting, and we are proud to be significant contributors to the resources available to those who are on their way out of the ivory tower.

But one aspect of How to Leave Academia that is at least somewhat unique is that we are a free, collaborative, peer-to-peer resource, created by post-academics, that offers not just career support, but life support. We are, to our knowledge, the only post-academic clearinghouse that targets struggling post-academics who have to rebuild their lives from the ground up after departing. This was our explicit goal when we started HTLA: from day one, our site has focused primarily on issues of debt, desperation, and hard choices for post-academics who are leaving academia with no safety net to catch them and no idea of how to progress in this new life.

This focus arose from the fact that none of the founders of HTLA were able to financially endure a prolonged period of unemployment (or marginal employment) after leaving, and that all of our post-academic life choices have proceeded from that point. We’ve applied for unemployment; we know what it’s like to feel as though our loans are a life sentence of punishment for graduate school; we struggle to create savings, let alone retirement funds; and, out of necessity, we work jobs we are indifferent to or even hate. Dropping out of grad school or refusing adjunct work was an important step for us, it’s true: but in our cases that step needed to be immediately followed up quickly with something. Putting thought into long-term career plans and into what our skills and strengths are was definitely something we did and continue to do, but by necessity those steps had to come after the steps of “consolidating and starting to pay on our student loans” and “finding a job - any job - that pays actual money so that we can buy food.”

It seems that this reality - that many academic leavers can’t survive a year of adjunct/freelance pay or marginal employment while they figure out what comes next - is being ignored by many in the postacademic movement. Many post-acs who exit grad school or adjuncthood in financial ruin and emotional turmoil are suffering from the consequences of the academic house of cards, yet they are given little to no support (as compared to the attention paid to the “success stories” who leave academia for a prestigious position elsewhere). And further, we worry that the glorification of the success stories (as opposed to the folks who left and are happily working as secretaries) can alienate some people who want to leave, but worry that they will be “doing it wrong” if they don’t find an awesome, Ph.D-level job right away.

Because of our experiences, we all believe that new post-academics need more than platitudes about “unlocking career potential” or “beginning new learning journeys,” and they need more than rousing rants about the corruption of academia or advice about how to find an industry research job. Those things are certainly important in the postacademic journey … but “not becoming homeless” is also important. And for many less-privileged academics, adjuncts, and grad students, “becoming homeless” is a very real fear. And getting yourself gainfully employed after you leave - no matter what job you take - is a goal that the postacademic movement needs to highlight and champion.

Rants and mental exercises and virtual support sessions for launching a freelance career are great, but post-academics also need practical, compassionate advice about entering the world of “9-5 employment,” if that’s what they have to do to survive. Historically, websites and articles have touched on this, but today’s public postacademic movement is absolutely not focused on those mundane, “how to survive in an office job while you get back on your feet” types of things. We at HTLA want to stake our claim for that audience of post-acs, and want to state - loudly and clearly - that that type of life choice is a good and valid one that should be applauded.

The fact that this is not currently happening - that twitter calls for people to “network” get more attention than any acknowledgement that some people need to find “any job” after leaving, and that coaching businesses are booming while publicly-accessible postacademic blogs are falling by the wayside - has led us to conclude something that is hard and sad for the three of us to come to terms with.

Yes, Virginia: there is a privilege divide in the post-academic movement.

A Way Forward

We neither demand nor expect that everyone agree with our critiques about today’s postacademic movement or with our stance on the future of post-academia, but we are hoping that more folks will share our vision. So what are our hopes for the postac movement, and our personal goals going forward?

  • We want career advice for post-academics to be broad, and take into account the variation in privilege, positionality, and resources of post-academics.

  • We want open-source stories, advice, and information to be available. Those who want to pay for access are welcome to do so, but that should not be the only way for post-acs to receive information and help. Because not everyone can pay.

  • We want a shift from ranting to genuine, purposeful critique; support; and a sense of community responsibility to advocate for others in the same position, or positions different from our own.

The lone genius in the ivory tower, the cutthroat competition within subfields of subfields of study, the ruthless job market, the inherent privilege bias on the ladder to success: post-academia is dangerously close to replicating these structural disasters that we all recognize in academia. Is this what we really want to reproduce - the prestige-based and unequal structure that we all fled academic to escape? What if the post-academic movement was instead about collaborative creation, mutual support, and social justice and was available to everyone, regardless of ability to pay?

For our part, we hope to live out these values in the collaborative space of How to Leave Academia, where the advice will always be free and written by post-academics on a volunteer basis, where ads will always be free, and where we will soon have a free, open forum for postacademics to seek help and advice. Our e-book, Moving On: Essays on the Aftermath of Leaving Academia, is value-priced so it is affordable for anyone who wants it, and its proceeds will go towards maintaining and expanding the site for the postac community. And we will continue to rattle our swords for structural reform to higher education (since we have no skin in the game other than a volunteer-staffed website), and will continue to offer advice for all post-academics, not just those who can pay.

We hope that other post-academics will follow suit, or will at least pay attention to different (less privileged) groups of academic leavers … and point them to the free resources that are out there. After all, we are all in this together. And if you remember how scared you were when you left and how grateful you were for the support that you received from those of us who were already out here … you should realize how important it is for those resources to be out here for everyone.

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